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
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:
Guide students through the formation of their learning teams.
Review the Learning Team Charter forms and provide feedback for improvement of charters.
Clearly delineate team assignments and performance expectations in the course syllabus.
Evaluate team assignments and projects, including relative contributions of individual team members.
Advise and coach teams that experience conflict.
Procure feedback on team progress as the course proceeds and provide coaching for improvement.
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.
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|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.|