Academic journal article Journal of Information Technology Education

Learning in Virtual Teams: Exploring the Student Experience

Academic journal article Journal of Information Technology Education

Learning in Virtual Teams: Exploring the Student Experience

Article excerpt


Virtual teams, also known as distributed collaborative teams, comprise of people who interact using telecommunications and electronic means to complete a particular organizational task (Edwards & Wilson, 2004). In the IT sector there is an increasing use of global virtual teams, where members are geographically and culturally dispersed (Massey, Hung, Montoya-Weiss & Ramesh, 2001; Powell, Piccoli & Ives, 2004). In the IT industry major companies are developing software through the use of virtual teams (Last, 2003). The ability to communicate effectively with team members, to work in a team to solve problems, to negotiate with colleagues and resolve conflicts, and to collaborate with culturally diverse members, are skills that are required of members working in virtual global teams. According to Lynch (2004), one of the greatest concerns for employers of IT graduates is not the graduate's lack of technical skills, but the lack of skills required to work effectively within a collaborative IT team. These types of professional skills are difficult to teach. An excellent way for students to practice these skills is to provide them with the workplace experience and to create opportunities where these skills are required of them.

In a literature review of virtual team research, Powell et al. (2004) identified 12 short-term studies that used student subjects. Virtual team success was found to be linked to team-building exercises; establishing of shared norms; and the specification of a clear team structure. According to the review, relationship building, perceived team cohesiveness and the level of trust are other factors which impact on the level of satisfaction when working within these types of teams. Last (2003) describes four themes--relationships, attitude, dialog and trust--and the associated cohesive attributes that emanated from her research of global teams of students in the Runestone Project. A number of studies have suggested how student virtual teams might be supported by teachers (see for example Fahraeus, Chamberlain, Bridgeman, Fuller & Rujelj, 1999; Last, 2003; Salmon, 2000; Whatley, 2004).

An investigation of Problem-based Learning (PBL) suggested that it would be an appropriate underlying pedagogy for providing the workplace experience and teaching the lifelong learning skills that are developed by students working in collaborative virtual teams. There are characteristics of PBL that closely emulate the workplace: authentic, open-ended problems are presented; the students work in groups to provide appropriate solutions to those problems; and problem-solving, teamwork, communication and leadership skills are practiced. In PBL, teachers are facilitators of learning and they provide the appropriate scaffolding as and when required. The computing industry in particular has a number of characteristics in common with PBL: computing is problem driven; lifelong learning skills are required due to the rapidly and continually changing nature of the industry; computing crosses discipline boundaries; and project groups are the predominate mode of operation (Ellis et al., 1998).

This paper reports on student experiences of a course that used an innovative PBL approach (Goold, 2004) and was delivered wholly online. The research presented here is part of an ongoing study to develop a better experiential online learning environment for students to practice their professional skills. This paper reports specifically on one of the sub-goals of the study which was to gain an understanding of how students interacted with the new environment, particularly as members of virtual teams. Three student survey questionnaires were used to collect the data.

The paper is structured as follows. The next section provides some background about the course, including details about the learning environment and the student teams. This is followed by a description of the study that sought to elicit feedback from students undertaking the course. …

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