The Effect of Virtual Team Membership on Attitudes towards Technology Usage: A Study of Student Attitudes in the United States

Article excerpt

Virtual teams are rapidly becoming more prevalent in both the business world and academia. Success in virtual teams requires the use of various technical tools including email, chat, discussion groups, sending attachments, and videoconferencing. In this paper, undergraduate student usage, comfort levels, and gender differentiation toward technologies related to virtual teams were investigated. Students in virtual teams between two Massachusetts state university campuses were surveyed at the beginning of the semester and again at the end of the semester. Results showed student comfort level and usage of these technologies for schoolwork was low, overall - with the exception of email. However, by the end of the semester project using virtual teams and its supporting technologies, student's comfort level improved significantly. Likewise, significant gender differences at the beginning of the semester in comfort with videoconferencing, PowerPoint presentations, and oral presentations were not present at the end of the semester, again after virtual team project. Both results support the need for providing structured learning experiences that require usage of supportive technologies - especially for business school students.

Background

The importance and effective use of virtual teams has been identified as one of the "five imperatives" emerging from information technology that will force organizations to "change ... structures, process and in human behavior" (Herman, 2001). Over the past few years, it has become commonplace for large companies to create teams that are geographically dispersed and supported by the Internet and a variety of support software and hardware such as NetMeeting, QuickTime, Notes, smart boards, and videoconferencing. As such, undergraduate and graduate programs in Management must begin to incorporate means for providing their students with both a theoretical understanding of virtual teams and practical strategies for utilizing them effectively -both in a learning environment while they are in school and as preparation for their future jobs.

To date, research on virtual teams provides some understanding of their challenges and how to use them effectively. Virtual team leaders find it difficult to keep communication flowing among the group members. "The problem ... (with virtual teams is)... usually some breakdown of communication. This is true in any group of people coming together; it's just exacerbated in a virtual environment" (Chase, 1999). The lack of regular visual and nonverbal cues also inhibits the normal development of trust among team members. "Swift" trust may exist at the beginning but is usually fragile and often collapses rapidly and unexpectedly (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999). Setting clear expectations and being particularly concrete in defining tasks are two ways to foster trust in the ambiguity of cyberspace (Platt, 1999). Additionally, leaders are advised to keep the virtual groups small in spite of the electronic ease in expanding group size (Katzenbach & Smith, 2001).

This paper will focus on student usage, comfort level, and gender differences with technologies related to using virtual teams in a classroom setting. Studying the use of Virtual Learning Environments (VLE's) in an academic setting, Frank (2002) found that both genders favored the time independence but they differed in the use of praise and how they learned in groups. Gefen and Straub's (1997) exploratory study indicate that women and men differ in their perceptions but not use of e-mail. According to Tucker (1995), the virtual classroom through computer-mediated distance learning (CMDL) provides a more level playing field for the genders. "Dimensions such as physical appearance, gender, showmanship, shyness and competition for limited discussion time are minimized or eliminated in the virtual classroom". Dresser (2002), however, references an analysis of on-line discourse by Sullivan and Hawisher (1997) which suggests that women on line make fewer and shorter contributions, and that both men and women respond more frequently to men's postings, thus reinforcing women's off-line status. …