June 2004 IndexHome Page

Editors Note: Muhammad Betz engages in a relevant discussion to assist instructors in establishing instructional strategies that promote vibrant online learning teams. Betz highlights recent research studies that reveal the complexity of small group dynamics. The author describes essential best teaching practices such as creating a team charter to help instructors to effectively manage their learning teams. Betz offers insights into the University of Phoenix and its instructional strategies to encourage interactivity, quality student work, and positive learning experiences.

Online Learning Teams: Indispensable Interaction

Muhammad K. Betz

Learning and Interaction

In a learning-centered educational environment (Glatthorn, 2000) the curricula, courses, and lessons are structured to optimize learning as the top priority of educational enterprise. In the educational environment commonly established for the milieu of online courses, an indispensable variable for ensuring optimal learning is that of interaction (Betz, 2002). It is a given that online courses usually include either synchronous or asynchronous requirements for student participation with the intention of creating student interaction. In the popular Blackboard system for hosting courses, for example, there is a special section called, Discussion Board, that allows instructors or students to post threaded messages to which other students reply. At the University of Phoenix Online, where as many as 100,000 students are enrolled in online courses at any given time, the mode for class discussions is a newsgroup folder hosted in Outlook Express. These types of discussions, while allowing individual students to ask questions of one another, do not develop a sense of community in all students, nor foster pragmatic abilities associated with group dynamics that are often required in professional life. Cast in terms of the “engagement theory” of learning (Kearsley and Schneiderman, 1998), the essential characteristic, collaboration, is missing or random.

Gusky (1997) states the following:

The discomfort that accompanies change is greatly compounded if those involved perceive they have no say in the process of if they feel isolated and detached in their implementation efforts. For this reason, all aspects … must involve teams of individuals working together. (p. 199)

The above quotation captures the essence of learning in online courses, in that e-learning is first and foremost a changed learning environment. Further, while discussions in the broad sense promote interaction between students and between the students and the instructor, they don’t provide teamwork-based interactions. As an antidote to perceptions of isolation, virtual learning teams build synergistic learning efforts among students in online courses (Scarnati, 2001). Synergy is a term that if often associated with medical practice and the uses of combinations of drugs to treat illnesses. The premise is that the sum of the effects of the combined drugs is greater than the simple summative effects of the drugs if taken separately. The use of collaborative, team based learning activities in online courses can create a synergy of learning as result of the interactions associated with teamwork, that will create a greater accrual of learning, than the simple sums of individual learning efforts.

The justifications for learning teams/communities in online courses is tacitly based on a need to compensate for an unfavorable situation related to that fact that students will not meet each other as in face-to-face encounters (Abbas, 2003). However, in the post-TQM world of corporate and professional endeavors, groups and teams have become common because of the positive effects of combining the efforts of individuals into small groups (Uribe, Klein, and Sullivan, 2003). Another important reason for team-based work is that technology-enhanced work and learning environments have become more complex, to the point that individuals simply can’t work in isolation (Head, Kaplan and Welker, 2001). Learning teams serve as a nexus between the job and education, between theory and practice, and between individuals and respective groups (Gibbons, 1999).

One research study compared traditional classroom efforts on group assignments compared with similar team assignments in classes that were computer-mediated at a distance (Scifres, Gundersen, and Behara, 1998). The results of this comparison indicated that while teams working exclusively through the medium of computers were less satisfied with their projects, they evidenced a higher rate of learning than their traditional counterparts. Another related study conducted by Lantz (2001) reported that professionals working in computer-mediated teams were more task oriented than traditional teams, in support of the earlier study.

In a different research study, researchers investigated the effects on students of two differently designed online course formats (Liu and Johnson, 2004). Eighty randomly selected students from online classes were equally represented by two groups of forty students from courses with two design formats: Type I design was a simpler, linear format, while Type II design was more complex with a non-linear format. Both types of courses were analyzed according to a variable called “interactive communication,” based on the following different levels: (a) daily, (b) weekly, (c) class-wide, (d) within-group, and (e) private. The Type II design included all five types, while Type I design very often included only one level, private. The results of the study showed significantly more learning in courses with a Type II design, and it is inferred from this study that online learning teams would account for the within-group interaction variable.

Learning Teams for Al l Online Courses: A Best Practice

The University of Phoenix Online (UOP) offers undergraduate and graduate courses to students in courses with a small class size of eight to fourteen adult students, and learning teams are an essential part of all UOP Online courses. The students in each of these courses are divided into learning teams of 3-5 students, who collaborate together to complete assignments that are especially beneficial to working adult learners (Learning team handbook, 2003). As described in the Learning Team Handbook, “Learning teams are small, intact groups of students formed at the beginning of each course from the larger cohort. Teams meet…to complete group assignments and projects” (p. 2).

A typical UOP Learning Team assignment is portrayed by the following one which has been taken from the graduate course, E-Learning in the Global Environment. Each learning team is instructed to work collaboratively during all six weeks of the course to develop a “best practices” manual for conducting online courses. This manual must address the topics of content, technology, assessment, communication, instructional design and delivery, as well as components of class interaction, diversity, globalization, culture, courtesy, research integrity, flexibility, and rigor. The Learning Team completes one chapter of the manual each week, and during the last week of the course, submits the compilation of chapters and a PowerPoint presentation of its contents.

Managing Learning Teams

The size of groups is an important element of the success of these online learning teams. Research with learning teams indicates that they work optimally with four or five members (Learning team handbook, 2003). A study conducted about optimal team size in undergraduate marketing courses returned findings that learning teams work best when team size is equal within the course (Cosse, Ashworth, and Weisenberger, 1999).

In addition to the issue of team size, it can be stated that online Learning Teams will not succeed automatically. Students need orientation to online teaming for the successful conduct of team activities. For example, an essential concept of teaming orientation at UOP Online for successful Learning Teams is “followership” (Lundin and Lancaster, 1990). Students are introduced to this term in courses at the beginning of their online programs, so that they become capable in learning situations where they are not working autonomously and often are cast in subordinate roles to others in their groups. The key team members’ values to be stressed are integrity, ownership and versatility.

Team Charter

In addition, an integral document to use with any learning team, online learning teams included, is a team charter (Wilkinson and Moran, 1998). As stated,

The team charter is the official document from the team sponsor that empowers the team to act. It is a written document describing the mission of the team and how this mission is to be accomplished. The team charter is one of the most under-used and under-valued tools available to sponsors, team leaders, and facilitators for helping a team succeed. (p. 355)

The Learning Team Charter should be completed as soon as team membership is assigned and in most online courses, that would be in the middle of the first week of class. It is preferable that students have received some level of instruction about teamwork prior to the online course, but a descriptive e-handout of guidelines for completing the charter should be provided for all students to read, regardless. The following components of the charter are recommended by the University of Phoenix (2002):


Course and contact information-Students identify their course and instructor, and share contact information.


Team member skill inventory-team members identify for their teammates what they the think they bring to the team in terms of special aptitudes, knowledge and skills for special team-related roles


Learning team goals-the team lists its goals for the course, including those relating to the completion of assignments, quality of work, or team meetings. In this section, potential barriers to realizing goals should be mentioned as well as identification of strategies for problem identification and solving.


Ground rules-the team members identify and agree to the rules of conduct for the team, related to such protocol items as meeting times, roles, responsibilities, methods of contact. The object is to improve team performance and minimize conflict.


Conflict management-while admitting that conflict is generally unavoidable, the team agrees that it should be managed. The team identifies potential sources of contact and outlines how to manage and prevent occurrences.

All teams would be required to submit their team’s charter by the end of the first week of the class, using a stipulated format or template based on the above points.

Another factor that needs to be added to the list of necessary characteristics of online learning teams is the instructor’s accountability. Once teams are assigned and the team work begins, instructors must remain active in enhancing the resulting learning. The University of Phoenix Learning Team Handbook (2003) gives the following list of instructors’ responsibilities:

  1. Guide students through the formation of their learning teams.

  2. Review the Learning Team Charter forms and provide feedback for improvement of charters.

  3. Clearly delineate team assignments and performance expectations in the course syllabus.

  4. Evaluate team assignments and projects, including relative contributions of individual team members.

  5. Advise and coach teams that experience conflict.

  6. Procure feedback on team progress as the course proceeds and provide coaching for improvement.

Individual Accountability

Prominent researchers have stated that individual accountability is necessary for cooperative learning-based instruction in order to ensure student achievement (Slavin, 1983; Kagan, 1996). As Slavin (1983) noted in his classic study on the effects of cooperative learning on student achievement, group learning is, of course, highly effective for problem solving because only one student on a team must know the solution or answer for the group to succeed. It follows that when learning is considered, individuals in groups must be held individually accountable for their contributions and efforts to team projects with rating scales completed by team mates (Meyerson and Adams, 2003).

In relation to point four above, team members should be provided the opportunity to rate the contributions of their teammates, and instructors are advised to create weekly rating forms that add accountability to individual team members’ efforts. This tactic is necessary for each individual to know that her/his efforts on the team are being monitored and for the team membership in general to know that fairness is being applied in the evaluation of team efforts. A simple three or four point rating scale can be used with each assignment and/or each week’s team activities. For this strategy to succeed, students must be required to submit the form every week. Instructors are then to prorate the team score in relation to each individual’s team score. Students should be notified in the course syllabus that this policy is based on the premise that individual grades on team assignments honor those who have worked equitably.


Many researchers agree that conflict within online learning teams is has both positive and negative effects on performance and learning (Caudron, 2000; Colbeck, Campbell Bjorklund, 2000; Montoya-Weiss, Massey, and Song, 2001, and Swenson, 2002). Swenson (2002) cites two major types of conflict on learning teams: affective (emotional) and cognitive. While emotional conflict is seen as debilitating, cognitive conflict is seen as motivational. As Caudron (2000) notes, “good” conflict is a source of creativity and growth, while “bad” conflict damages relationships and ultimately hinders performance.

One research study investigated the efficacy of five conflict-symptom options: avoidance, accommodation, competition, collaboration, and compromise (Montoya-Weiss, et al., 2001). The authors found that the use of intervening devices could mitigate the presence of “bad” conflict. It can be inferred from this study that the use of team charters and individual accountability ratings could be classified as the type of intervening devices that reduce “bad” conflict.


Interaction among students in the activities of online learning teams is an indispensable component for optimal learning in online classes. Successful online instructors must learn and apply a crafted management of learning teams in line with related research and best practices.


Abas, Z. (2003, February 27). Meaningful learning online. New Straits Times (Kuala Lumpur), Section: Outlook Web Watch.

Betz, M. (2002). A case study of essentials of practice at an online university. USDLA Journal, 16(10). http://www.usdla.org/html/journal/OCT02_Issue/article08.html

Caudron, S. (2000). Keeping team conflict alive: Conflict can be a good thing. Public Management, 82(2), 5-9.

Colbeck, C., Campbell, S., and Bjorklund, S. (2000). Grouping in the dark: What college students learn from group projects. The Journal of Higher Education, 71(1), 60-83.

Cosse, T., Ashworth, D., and Weisenberger, T. (1999). The effects of team size in a marketing simulation. Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, 7(3), 98-107.

Gibbons, S. (1999). Learning teams: Action learning for leaders. The Journal for Quality and Participation, 22(4), 26-29.

Glatthorn, A.A. (2000). The principal as curriculum leader: Shaping what is taught and tested. Corwin Press, A Sage Publications Company.

Gusky, T. (1997). Implementing master learning. New York: Wadsworth Publishing Company. Pp. xxvii + 308.

Head, G, Kaplan, J., and Welker, M. (2001). Team learning is here to stay: Part 1 of the “learning team” series. New Accountant, 16(3), 14-16.

Kagan, S. (1996). Avoiding the group-grades trap. Learning, 24(4), 56-58.

Kearsley, G., and Schneiderman. (1998). Engagement theory. Educational Technology, 38(3).

Lantz, A. (2001). Meetings in a distributed group of experts: Comparing face-to-face, chat and collaborative virtual environments. Behaviour and Information Technology, 20(2), 111-117.

Liu, L., and Johnson, L. (2004). Static and dynamic design in online course development. Proceedings of the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education, USA, 15, 2946-2951.

Lundin, S., and Lancaster, L. (1990). Beyond leadership: The importance of followership. The Futurist, 24(3), 18.

Meyerson, P., and Adams, S. (2003). Designing a project-based learning experience for an introductory educational psychology course: A quasi-experiment. (Report No. TM 035 072) Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (Chicago, IL, April 21-25, 2003). (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 478205)

Montoya-Weiss, M., Massey, A., and Song, M. (2001). Getting it together: Temporal coordination and conflict management in global virtual teams. Academy of Management Journal, 44(6), 1251-1262.

Scarnati, J. (2001). On becoming a team player. Team Performance Management, 7(1,2), 5.

Scifres, E., Gundersen, D., and Behara, R. (1998). An empirical investigation of electronic groups in the classroom. Journal of Education for Business, 73(4), 247-251.

Slavin, R. (1983). When does cooperative learning increase student achievement? Psychological Bulletin, 94(3), 429-445.

Swenson, C. [Editor]. (2002). Tools for teams. Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing. Pp. x + 319.

University of Phoenix. (2003). Learning team handbook. Phoenix, AZ: University of Phoenix.

Uribe, D., Klein, J. and Sullivan, H. (2003). The effect of computer-mediated collaborative learning on solving ill-defined problems. Educational Technology Research and Development, 51(1), 5-19.

Wilkinson, N., and Moran, J. (1998). Team charter. The TQM Magazine, 10(5), 355.

About the Author

Muhammad Betz is Professor and Departmental Chair of Educational Instruction and Leadership at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. He is also a member of the Faculty and a Faculty Mentor at the University of Phoenix Online, where he has taught and/or mentored over one hundred online courses for graduate credit. His degrees in field are: B.S., Ball State University; M. Ed. and Ph.D., University of Texas-Austin. His specialty areas include Instructional Technology, Curriculum and Instruction, and Teacher Education.

Email: mbetz@SOSU.EDU



go top
June 2004 Index
Home Page