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Friday, 1 June 2012

Building Virtual Teams with Social Media Technologies

Building Virtual Teams with Social Media Technologies

Haihong Hu

Department of Leadership Studies

University of Center Arkansas

United States


Abstract: Presently, more and more virtual teams are being used in higher education and business because of the development of technologies and globalization. They have become an essential approach for team learning as well as task completion. Team learning, especially in an online format, can be challenging due to lack of effective training, communication and assessment measures. This session can be useful to distance learning instructional designers or instructors. It will introduce strategies, including adding a module on team process, using a Google Map and Google Sites for communication, and evaluating learning products plus the processes, which assist cultivating virtual teams in online courses.



A virtual team is a group of people, who may possibly live in different locations or cultures, engage in a technology-enabled team in order to accomplish learning or job tasks (Alavi & Yoo, 1997; Desanctis & Poole, 1997; Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999). Increasingly virtual teams have been used in organizations and higher education as a result of the development of technologies and globalization, and it has become a crucial process for team learning in addition to task completion.

This presentation is going to introduce the design and development of a graduate online course, which works as an introduction for Educational Leadership major students to develop an understanding about virtual teams and to collaborate in a virtual community of practice, to exercise in leading virtual teams and improving organizational teamwork in schools and other learning organizations.  This course uses a textbook titled Teaching and Learning with Virtual Teams (Ferris & Godar, 2006) published by Information Science Publishing in Hershey, PA. It employs multiple modes of instruction including, but not limited to, video-conferencing lectures, virtual small group work, web-based instructional materials, guest speakers, and individual research.

Technology Standard from NETS
To be an effective teacher or leader in a 21st century educational setting, an individual needs to  apply the National Educational Technology Standards for Students (NETS•S) as he or she designs, implements, and assesses learning experiences to engage students; enhance professional practice; and model positively for students, colleagues, and the community.

In the recently revised Technology Standards for Teachers and Administrators from NETS (2008), there is a huge emphasis on virtual environments, digital citizenship, digital age leadership, collaborative knowledge construction, reflective learning, and global awareness. The standards advocate advancing “student learning, creativity, and innovation in both face-to-face and virtual environments”. Teachers and administrators are supposed to “engage students in exploring real-world issues and solving authentic problems using digital tools and resources” and “promote student reflection using collaborative tools to reveal and clarify students’ conceptual understanding and thinking, planning, and creative processes” and  “model collaborative knowledge construction by engaging in learning with students, colleagues, and others in face-to-face and virtual environments”. Teachers and administrators are required to “exhibit knowledge, skills, and work processes representative of an innovative professional in a global and digital society” and “develop and model cultural understanding and global awareness by engaging with colleagues and students of other cultures using digital-age communication and collaboration tools.”

New Technology for Team Learning
Technology is developing relentlessly, and a large number of online social media tools have been tested effective for education and leadership.
Eloia & Oskoz (2010) discovered wikis and chats allowed students to focus on writing components during collaborative writing using foreign language. Craig, Paraiso & Patten (2007)’s research revealed that English language learners did improve overall writing skills and vocabulary development using iPods.
Towner & Dulio (2011) called the 2008 US presidential election the ‘YouTube Election’, and they found that young adults who were exposed to YouChoose’08, a YouTube channel used by the election, appeared to be more cynical toward the US government, yet also felt more intensely that they could influence the political system.
DeAndrea, Ellison, LaRose, Steinfield, & Fiore (2011) described that the use of a student-centered social media site enhanced students' perceptions that they would have a variety of social support network during their first semester, which might help with students' adjustment to college.
Hemmi, Bayne, & Land (2009) reported findings from a virtual ethnographic study of three formal courses that used ‘Web 2.0’ social technologies, particularly weblogs and wikis, for learning and teaching in higher education. The report indicates that despite the fact that the academy tends to limit the possibly more drastic effects of these new media, students and instructors consider these technologies have significant potential as new collaborative, flexible and challenging environments for formal learning.
The development of technology has challenged the traditional paradigm about the use of technologies and teamwork for teaching and learning, and will require a transformation in the skill set of in-or pre-service teachers and educational leaders who provide instruction and leadership in the 21st century educational settings.


Need for the Course

A special course on Virtual Teams is needed to advance the knowledge about and skills related with this phenomenon of virtual teams and the most current technology tools for teaching and learning for future educational leaders (Educational Leadership graduate students) and educational technology professionals in the College of Education of this university in northern Florida.
Upon informal interview with several  instructors teaching face-to-face or online traditional educational leadership courses at this university,  it was found that most instructors are already using some technologies such as Blackboard Learning Management System,  online resources, video and audio CDs or DVDs, etc. in their courses.  Due to the vast range of the course content with limited resources in time, instructor and student proficiency and apprehension with technology, it is not usually possible to introduce the topic about virtual teams in detail and to integrate a larger number of technologies into their courses and to provide practices within this topic.
Traditionally, organization structures in educational or business settings interfere with team learning and create hurdles through (Marquardt & Reynolds, 1994): bureaucracy; poor communication and leadership; resource utilization or the lack of it; and the large size of the organization. Team learning is also the most challenging to many people because of the following several reasons. The process of learning how to learn as a group is unfamiliar; the traditional education does not provide training on team process. People are afraid of times of frustration and even embarrassment, while the team members mature in their collective capabilities.

Course Goals and Objectives

The goal of the course is to develop a broad-based theoretical foundation as well as knowledge, skills, and dispositions that will facilitate effective leadership for and management of the human resources available to school leaders. Upon completion of this course, the students will be able to facilitate the development of, function within, and lead work groups and self-directed work teams virtually within an organization.


Specific course objectives include the following: 1) Students will demonstrate knowledge of the basic principles of group dynamics as they impact educational leadership; 2) Students will demonstrate an understanding of the role and responsibilities of group/team leaders in the workplace and the roles of virtual teams within the overall organization; 3) Students will identify the characteristics of effective virtual teams and demonstrate knowledge of the assets and liabilities associated with a virtual team approach to organizational leadership; 4) Students will demonstrate knowledge of and the skills necessary for developing and leading an effective virtual team; 5) Students will demonstrate knowledge of contemporary research and literature in the field of virtual teams; 6) Students will demonstrate the ability to communicate effectively in a variety of virtual team settings; 7) Students will demonstrate skills in observing and assessing the performance of virtual teams; 8) Students will demonstrate knowledge of the roles of individuals within a virtual team and the concept of role conflict; 9) Students will demonstrate sensitivity to and knowledge of the role of diversity in virtual teams; 10) Students will demonstrate knowledge, skills and dispositions needed to facilitate effective virtual team decision making and communication; 11) Students will demonstrate knowledge and skills regarding ethics and conflict management in virtual team leadership; 12)  Students well demonstrate reflective practice as virtual team members and leaders.

Course Content and Activities

This Virtual Teams course is designed as an introductory or survey course on the application of virtual team in educational leadership. This course is based on the theories of both cooperative learning and educational technology; and students acquire and maintain the knowledge and skills that are outlined in the Florida Educational Leadership Standards (2005) and NETS Technology Standards (2008).
Course topics include: basic principles of Team Process; the role & life cycle of virtual teams; team Effectiveness in Virtual Environment; Challenges of Virtual Teams; The role of the Instructor/ Emerging Leadership in Virtual Teams; Conflict and Virtual Teams ; Virtual Teams and Technology Use; Assessing Learning in Virtual Teams; Building a Community of Learning in Dispersed Context;  Issues in International Virtual Collaboration; and Good Practice in International Virtual Collaboration/ Development of Global Virtual Teams.
The activities and assessment of the course consist of: asynchronous class discussions and case study using Blackboard discussion forum;  synchronous web conferences for lectures and presentations; a research literature review by using a wiki site; guest speaker from St. John’s Virtual School on “Working in Virtual Teams on a Daily Bases” and guest speaker from another university on  “Technology adaptation in Virtual Teams”; group work and  presentations on applied projects for solving assigned and group-selected real-world questions or problems using Web 2.0 technologies, more specifically, Google Sites; keeping a reflective journal on learning of the concepts in relation to experience in virtual groups along the way;  and developing a descriptive case study outlining the members and leadership processes observed at the end of the course.

Principles Applied in Course Design

This Virtual Teams course was designed based on Group Process and Cooperative Learning (Johnson & Johnson, 1997) principles.
A traditional face-to-face group usually goes through four stages of development (Tobin, 1993): Formation, development of team skills, development of management skills, and self-management, to become a team. Virtual teams go through these stages as well, but the process acts much faster than in face-to-face teams (Johnson, Suriya, Yoon, Berrett & La Fleur, 2002).
To ensure the success of a virtual team process, administrators or instructors might also want to use: 1) team-building exercises to encourage information exchange, to build trust and establish team identity (Jarvenpaa, Knoll, & Leidner, 1998); 2) goal setting and strategic planning for completing learning or tasks to achieve “shared mental models” (Powell, Piccoli & Ives, 2004); and 3) reflection on participants’ “psychological profile” and “personality characteristics” during the design of the team. These procedures might help alleviate the negative effects caused by ideological barriers.
In this Virtual Teams course, first of all, a more elaborated self-introduction using Blackboard discussion forum was used by the instructor for selecting students into groups appropriately; Using a Google Map and a Google gadget World Clock, every class member was able to mark out his or her location and time zone; a module for an Overview on Cooperative Learning was built into the course to provide students with readings on group processes, video clips from Youtube or TeacherTube on team building, materials and spaces for a case study titled “The group that Wasn’t” using concepts from cooperative learning & team process,  and self-reflective writing through a private Blog/Journal on the role and life cycle of virtual teams. On a Google Site, students were required to create a “What We Share” page to identify the commonalities within their respective groups,  to design a team name and logo collaboratively,  and to establish a team contract with the document posted and consented by everyone.
To facilitate communication within groups, Senge,  Kleiner, Roberts, Ross and Smith (1994)  advocated we use two conversational forms: dialogue and skillful discussion; Jarvenpaa, Knoll, and Leidner (1998) recommended frequent and predictable conversation and regular feedback; Warkentin, Sayee and Hightower (1997)  suggested utilizing technology-enabled informal face-to-face contact early in the process, and  Malhotra, Majchrzak, Carman, and Lott (2001) proposed developing a protocol for coordination and employing communication training interventions.
In this Virtual Teams course, groups described how often they would meet (virtually or physically) to discuss about and to work on the projects in their Team Contracts. Then they had the instructor set up Elluminate sessions for group meetings, and posted their meeting minutes on their Google Site for everyone to access. They uploaded their interim products on Google Site for every group member to review and to provide feedback. A group leader was in charge of coordinating the meetings and maintaining the communication flow. Group members were more aware of and more careful with tones of language to use and other forms of netiquette during interactions because they read and watched about challenges in virtual team communication and conflict resolution.
To optimize the technical expertise in virtual teams, it is necessary to include sufficient knowledge searching or building gears and an invigorating environment for community development (Bitter-Rijpkema, Martens & Jochems, 2002). Due to the variety of skill levels and sets of members, a group may need to negotiate what specific technology to use for completing learning or job tasks (Sarker & Sahay, 2002). Overcoming technical uncertainty and challenges might even bring about the development of trust and collective identity/capabilities (Javenpaa & Leidner, 1999).  Thus, we might need to encourage virtual teams to adapt technologies (Maznevski & Chudoba, 2001).
In this Virtual Teams course, Google Sites and Elluminate were selected by the instructor for the first application project because they allow for abundant knowledge searching and building functions and can be developed into an energizing environment for a learning community. For the second application project, the instructor did give the groups opportunities to negotiate what technology to use for completing the tasks. Some groups decided to use email and text-message instead of Elluminate because all of the members had a smart phone and could operate meetings more flexibly; some groups stayed with the Elluminate option because they preferred the human voice contact and more direct approach for solving issues. All of the groups chose to stick with Google Sites as their working space to contain most of the written group interaction and products.  It was observed by the instructor as well as students that group members were learning from each other on how to operate Google Site and Elluminate better during the project process, and they consequently became closer in personal relationship because they have developed trust in each other and improved collective capabilities.
This was a great learning experience for the instructor to design and teach this Virtual Teams course, and witness online learning groups transforming into virtual teams. It was equally insightful to some students, just like one of them commented “I feel as if I will have a great advantage when taking online courses now. You course allowed us to learn about virtual teams first hand, and while it was tough, it provided great insight.” The concepts about and the module that provided training on group process and virtual teams, and the practices through the use of social media technologies have thus been applied to several other online courses that utilizes group assignments for activities and assessment. The anecdotal positive effects of adding this group process training is yet to be tested through more systematic evaluation.

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