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Editor’s Note
: Design of instruction requires knowledge of technology tools and skill in selection, adaptation, and application. This study determines strengths and weaknesses of specific technologies and how they can be combined for effective teaching and learning.

Interactive technologies
for effective collaborative learning

Seung-hee Lee, Richard Magjuka, Xiaojing Liu, Curt J. Bonk


Selecting which technologies to use and how to use them in online teaching and learning environments is a critical variable to ensure the quality of the process and the performance of teamwork. Under the framework of three different modes of teamwork (i.e., communication, cooperation, and collaboration), this study reviewed an online MBA program as a representative case study to reveal usage patterns of technologies for virtual teaming activities. Study findings indicated that technologies and tool functions that instructors and students frequently used for teamwork were in the categories of both communication and cooperation technologies. Pedagogical implications for the current states of technology use and suggestions for better usage of collaborative technologies were discussed in the study.

I. Introduction

Teamwork is one of the most widely used instructional activities in traditional classrooms as well as online learning environments. Many studies point out that teamwork activities provide a pedagogically-rich context to assist students in building meaningful knowledge in online environments (Carabajal, LaPointe, & Gunawardena, 2003; Lee, Bonk, Magjuka, Su, & Liu, 2005; Palloff & Pratt, 2005). In this sense, the use of team activities in online environments has appreciated in value as an instructional approach during the past decade.

When teamwork is introduced in online environments (where it is typically referred to as ‘virtual teams’), the context for the teaming activities becomes different from that of traditional classroom teamwork. Virtual team members are dispersed in physically and culturally different environments. Idea exchanges and decision-making within such teams via technologies require more time, effort, and detailed guidelines than traditional classroom teamwork.

One distinguishable arena of research on virtual teamwork, different from those of typical classroom teamwork, is the use of technological tools on virtual teamwork. Technologies for virtual teams provide unique communicational channels, offer promise for innovative instructional delivery and activities, and highlight opportunities for jointly built accomplishments and goal-based learning behaviors. Team members adjust to the features and functions of the technological tools for enriched team operation but also adjust the tool settings to their unique team needs and preferences. In the teamwork process, team members learn strategies for problem solving and task completion from one another.

The success of virtual teams depends on the balanced integration of technologies and pedagogical activities. What virtual team members ultimately pursue during their team activities and how they pursue it determines their team behaviors, communications, and interactions in online environments. Also, the decisions about which tools are selected and which features those tools possess eventually impact the virtual team’s processes and performances. However, the increased use of virtual teaming activities has not been accompanied by research efforts to better understand how interactive technologies successfully assist virtual teamwork in online environments.

In response, this study focuses on the identification of the current usage pattern of interactive technologies in virtual teaming activities. To determine this, the study classifies three different modes of technologies (i.e., communication, cooperation, and collaboration), based on two conceptual frameworks: one by Chinowsky and Rojas (2003), and the other by Himmelman (2002). An understanding the usage of different interactive technologies will clarify pedagogical implications related to effective virtual teamwork as well as assist instructors and educational practitioners in designing interactive virtual teaming experiences.

II. Theoretical Review

1. Classifications of virtual teams

What are the differences between of traditional teams and virtual teams? Virtual teams can be defined as “a group of people with complementary competencies executing simultaneous, collaborative work processes through electronic media without regard to geographic location” (Chinowsky & Rojas, 2003, pp. 98). Teamwork for educational purposes requires a group of students to pursue a common learning goal by completing certain tasks. Usually traditional teamwork is carried out in a classroom setting and students gather face-to-face in a place when they need to continue working after the classes. In contrast, virtual teams have different operation mechanisms or ways of interacting than traditional classroom teams. Virtual team members scatter and reside in different places under different time zones. They overcome distances of time and location and to pursue interdependent tasks or team projects mediated by technologies.

Teams evolve. Throughout the process of accomplishing various tasks, teams experiences their emergence and growth over time. At the beginning of teamwork, teams members get to know one another and mingle together to create their identities and norms within the teams. As teams settle down and gradually grow to a maturity, they begin to unite and concentrate on team products. The stages of team developmental process virtual teams go through assist in shaping team behaviors and overall performance. By going through these stages, teams mature to experience the peak of collaboration.

In an extended sense, collaboration can be an ideal form of teamwork for a change. Himmelman (2002) defines that “collaboration is in a relation to three other strategies for working together: networking, coordination, and cooperation” (p. 1). Interestingly, this developmental continuum of four strategies indicates from an organizational perspective that teams can be distinguished by what they are eventually seeking as a team and how they behave during teamwork.

However, this study operationally combines “networking” and “coordination” of Himmelman’s terms into the name of “communication”. Further, it proposes a modified framework with three modes of teamwork: (1) communication, (2) cooperation, and (3) collaboration (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 Three modes of virtual teams

For example, virtual teams in a communication mode can be found at an early stage of the team developmental process. Such teams mainly exchange information and change work activities that are mutually beneficial for all participants (Himmelman, 2002). Behaviors such as sending, receiving, or responding to messages are ordinary communication behaviors. Under communication modes, team members transmit information among themselves via technologies. However, they seldom go further to process or manipulate information or data (Chinowsky & Rojas, 2003). Teams naturally show basic communicational behaviors such as social interactions, information searching, and changing activities in order to smooth team activities.

However, communicational behaviors themselves do not guarantee team accomplishment or team effectiveness. Once communicational behaviors begin coordinating positive relationships among team members, virtual teams move into the next level of teamwork: cooperation. Cooperation can be defined as “exchanging information, altering activities, and sharing resources for mutual benefit and to achieve a common purpose” (Himmelman, 2002, p. 2). In a cooperative virtual team mode, they work more actively beyond the behaviors of surface communication and information distribution. Emphasis is placed on a sense of sharing resources within teams. By doing so, team members clarify the direction of team projects and divide labor and take responsibilities for a portion of the mutual tasks (Lehtinen, 2003; Roschelle & Teasley, 1995).

Finally, teams are gradually engaged in an optimal level of teamwork and their viewpoints toward teamwork become mature. They turn a direction for their teamwork onto process and growth, from a product itself. Roschelle and Teasley (1995) suggest that teamwork involves mutual engagement in a coordinated effort to solve problems together. Teams keep exchanging information, altering activities, and sharing resources to fit their mutual project needs as same as what they have done in the modes of communication and cooperation. Further, they eventually support enhancing the capacity of peer members or teams, and on achieving a common purpose (Himmelman, 2002). Collaboration mindset of teamwork pushes team members to jointly produce meaningful products and accomplish team goals (which should simultaneously meet individual goals and expectations); these experiences are typically more authentic and meaningful than traditional learning situations.

2. Classification of interactive technologies

What technologies have been used to facilitate online teaching and learning? How can we classify technologies for a virtual teaming activity? Simply, classical classifications of technologies fall into two categories, asynchronous tools and synchronous tools (Coleman, 1997) or four categories, same time/same place, same time/different place, different time/same place, and different time/different place (Duarte & Snyder, 1999). Some researchers emphasize the significant roles of collaborative writing and groupware in online learning environments (Bonk, Medury, & Reynolds, 1994).  For them, the Internet not only opens up interesting and novel collaborative writing opportunities, it also provides new forms of mentoring, scaffolded learning, and cognitive apprenticeship. In addition, web-based collaborative environments open windows on how teams socially interact and negotiate meaning in shared social spaces to produce new documents and reports. It is the permanency and tracking within socially shared workspaces that gives electronic environments significant advantages over physical ones (Schrage, 1990).

It is easily expected that students prefer to select technological tools when their tool functions are understandable and easily accessible to them. Moreover, students use tools better when the use of technological tools is pedagogically well designed. When technologies are properly integrated into the design of online instructions, student will be less resistant to learn in online environments and be more engaged in team building activities. Interestingly, Chinowsky and Rojas (2003) stressed that the roles of technologies in virtual teaming activities go beyond electronic communications, transferring information, and the products of team projects. In a similar sense, Salomon, Perkins, and Globerson (1991) noted that interactive technologies can be working as cognitive tools to prompt a mental state of students. Considering potential impacts of technologies on virtual teamwork, it is critical that instructors and students be aware of what technological tools can be used effectively under a particular circumstance, instead of being overwhelmed by technologies themselves. This knowledge will assist instructors and students to enhance instructional efforts to create meanings throughout collaboration.

Interactive technologies for virtual teamwork should allow teams to communicate, collaborate, and share knowledge and information resources with other team members and beyond (Mayben, Nichols, & Wright, 2003; Sole & Applegate, 2000). Currently many current course management systems support virtual teaming activities with advanced technological tools containing a variety of functions as well as with primitive tools for file uploading and downloading. However, the proper application of technological tools into the virtual teaming activities is not fully known or exploited. Of course, the appropriate use of technologies determines the quality of virtual teaming process and performance. And yet, many questions regarding effective use of those technologies remain unsolved. For example, just what is appropriate use?  In addition, what technological tools can we consider for each of the virtual team modes (communication, cooperation, and collaboration)? And how can we use the technological tools effectively as cognitive tools as Salomon and his associates contend?

If the focus is on technology, several reports help acclimate us to what is available (see Table 1). Mayben, Nichols, and Wright (2003), for instance, list a variety of interactive technologies for online teaching and learning (e.g., email, file transfer protocol, video conferencing, discussion boards, electronic mailing list, instant messaging programs, digital imaging, web sites, phones, and word processing editing tools). Other studies have mostly relied on fairly simple and straightforward synchronous and asynchronous technology classifications or application summaries (Bonk et al., 1994; Coleman, 1997; Duarte & Snyder, 1999). However, this study examines different technologies in different virtual team modes, and it utilizes Chinowsky and Rojas’ (2003) spectrum of technologies. Their classification of technologies is useful to examine the actual technology use in virtual teaming activities.

Table 1
Classifications of interactive technologies



Coleman (1997)

§         Synchronous (desktop and real-time data conferencing, electronic display, video conferencing and audio conferencing)

§         Asynchronous applications (e-mail, bulletin boards, non-real-time database sharing and conferencing, workflow applications)

Duarte & Snyder (1999)

§         Same time, same place (residence meeting)

§         Same time, different place (audio conference, video conference)

§         Different time, same place (chat room, bulletin board)

§         Different time, different place (e-mailing, voice mail message)

Bonk, Medury, & Reynolds (1994)

§         Electronic mail and delayed messaging tools

§         Remote access/Delayed collaborative writing

§         Real-time dialoguing and idea generation tools

§         Real-time collaborative writing tools

§         Cooperative hypermedia

Chinowsky & Rojas (2003)

§         Communication technology

§         Cooperation technology

§         Collaboration technology

First, the essential functions of communication technologies are on message exchange and information delivery. These communication-type messages can be via either analogue or electronic channels. According to Chinowsky and Rojas (2003), traditional analogue devices such as phones can be one of tools for communication. Also, email is another representative communication technology that delivers messages in an electronic, text-based format. These tools enable students to easily distribute information and resources to one another. However, a phone does not archive their conversations and it requires additional effort to record them on purpose. Meanwhile, students exchange ideas and store information via email. They can track back to the history of email dialogues asynchronously if they save email exchanges and resources in their computers’ personal folders. This limited feature of phones and emails support team communications in part, but do not fully exert team products.

Secondly, cooperative technologies feature technical advances over communication technologies. For instance, a forum-style discussion board and team file space fall into the category of cooperation technologies. The central focus of cooperative technologies is to utilize information and develop team-level ideas and solutions related to team tasks. Each team member accesses to his or her designated team workspace, stores collected resources, and updates project documentations. They asynchronously discuss, argue, and debate with team members in a discussion forum and converge on ideas for team products. However, due to asynchronicity of cooperation technologies, their functions are not effective for urgent real-time decision making.

Finally, among the key attributes of collaboration technologies[1] is to provide real-world work situations and experiences. In online environments, a sense of presence is low and students are easily isolated due to a lack of nonverbal cues and potential misinterpretation from text-based communications. Synchronous communications and data production are critical if students need to work in highly contextual learning environments similarly with face-to-face teams, and if team members need to accomplish team products in a limited time. Dual modes of delivery (e.g., visual-text or audio-text) provided by synchronous tools such as videoconferencing or web conferencing are useful for reducing team member efforts by just-in-time data manipulation and idea exchanges. In this sense, real-time chat or video conferencing tools support virtual teams to make team activities smoother and more efficient. Also, additional functions for awareness information (team members’ login, teamwork progress, etc.) are critical to support the emotional flow of teamwork process. This information reduces a feeling of isolation and increases a sense of presence over teamwork in online environments. However, the use of collaboration technologies has to be followed by careful planning since it requires coordinating different time zones and additional preparation of software and hardware (e.g., computer camcorder, headset, installation of particular software). The description of different categories of interaction technologies for virtual teams can be summarized as Figure 2.

Each different technology features it own capacity. Important is that each mode of technologies can be appropriate at different stages of circumstances of virtual teamwork. As alluded earlier, many technology applications are currently in use by virtual teams, but the technology use itself does not guarantee the effectiveness of team activities. The present study attempts to identify how technologies support the process and performance of virtual teamwork. The study findings will help to verify the warnings of Kirschner and Van Bruggen (2004) who argue that from a pedagogical viewpoint, current technologies for teamwork are, generally speaking, designed for mechanical functions related to basic communications among team members, or limitedly used for support teaming activities.


Figure 2. Three modes of interactive technologies

III. Methodology

In this study, online MBA courses in an accredited program at a top ranked business school at a large Midwestern university were reviewed to find out the current usage pattern of different technologies under the three modes of communication, cooperation, and collaboration.

Data collected in this study include: (1) 27 content analyses of course documents and class assignments including student participation in class activities posted on the course management system, (2) surveys of 102 students on their perceptions of virtual teamwork and used technologies, and (3) interviews with 27 faculty members and 12 students. All these data were collected and analyzed to triangulate the data from survey, interviews, and content analyses to identify emerging themes and issues related to technology use in virtual teamwork.

IV.  Findings

According to content analyses, 78% of courses (21 out of 27) used virtual teaming activities. Overall, the findings of online student surveys indicate positive satisfaction with teamwork activities as an instructional method in online environments. More specifically, 86% of students responded that working in teams is helpful for learning online (M=4.22[2], SD=.91). Students positively mentioned that virtual teamwork contributed to build co-knowledge among themselves (M=4.18, SD=.80).

Regarding the use of technologies for virtual teams, 72% of students responded that online courses provided them with useful tools for teamwork (M=3.74, SD=1.01). This study explored further what technologies were used for supporting virtual teams under three categories of communication, cooperation, and collaboration as described in the literature review. The results of the content analyses are as follows:

1. Use of communication technologies

The study results show that virtual teams in the online MBA program frequently use communication technologies for virtual teams—mostly phones and emails. The usage pattern of communication technologies can be summarized into three implications below.

1.1. Easy accessibility of text-based communication tools increases frequency of use: Email is a representative communication tool for daily work and, not surprisingly, virtual teams also widely used email for their communications (27 courses, 100%). The study revealed that both instructors and students liked email due to the simple use and easy accessibility. Also, the functional familiarity of email was one of the reasons students selected email without hesitation as a major tool for interactions. Sending and receiving emails to members within a team help members get to know each other and builds an initial foundation for working together. For example, the following quote shows that an instructor in this online MBA program used email as a way of building a sense of personal cohesion within teams:

(Students email me and peer students) each other. Because they could sort of click on a bunch of people and send e-mails that way without going to a particular forum, and I had set them up in groups so that they could have, you know, have the people that they associated with in their group.

1.2. Analog devices are in good use for team communications: Phones were another frequently used type of communication technology among virtual teams. Phones are a traditional analog two-way communication medium that are not embedded in the course management systems. The immediacy and just-in-time interactions enhanced the use of phones among students. However, students in this program may have used internet-based phone services such as Skype and Google Talk to enhance their team-related processes and activities; we did not ask that in our surveys.

One noticeable usage pattern of phones in the online MBA program was the selection of conference calls. Some virtual teams scheduled to have conference calls for the purpose of group communications when they needed to discuss or make decisions with several members. Obviously, the use of phones and synchronous interactions prompts quick and just-in-time dialogues with their peers whenever they think necessary.

However, the study findings indicate that students were faced with the challenge of appropriate coordination of conference calls due to joint meetings and full team participation being hindered by different time zones. As seen in the quote below, students noted the difficulty in using conference calls:

We’ve used conference calls and the mail and in one course we used conference calls but there were like 6 people on the line so it was kind of hard to do that.

Regular phone conversation… (as international student) it’s especially difficult for me because I’m on a different (location), I live so far away so the students say okay let’s meet up today after work at 8:00. It’s 8:00 PM Eastern is like 3:00 AM for me. It’s pretty difficult for me. I have to get up, set my alarm, and get over to the clock….so mine is very expensive.

1.3. Communication technologies are easy to use but limited to promote teamwork: The study findings demonstrate that communication technologies serve primarily to prompt communication - in other words, message delivery and information distribution. It enables students to exchange ideas or manage simple discussions. However, students point out that these tools have limitations for deep discussions or debates among team members. The following quote illustrates the limited usage pattern of communication technologies for virtual teams.

Team discussion usually happen(s) via emails and what happens unfortunately is because the assignments are so big and we’re working on it for so long the discussions, we just spend one day at the end on the last day before the submission to discuss. So we’re not really discussing much…

2. Use of cooperation technologies

The tools that support asynchronous activities for development of team products fall into the category of cooperation technologies (e.g., discussion forums, team private workspaces, etc.). In other words, cooperation technologies serve the goals of asynchronous creating, manipulating, modifying, storing, and retrieving team products, while communication technologies are used for information distribution. Also, text-based discussion forums are asynchronously used for elaborating ideas among team members. Implications on the use of cooperative technologies can be summarized as follows:

2.1. Features of discussion forums provide students with opportunities to think more reflectively: Both instructors and students confirmed that text-based asynchronous discussion forums are frequently used tools that make online learning interactive. As evident in the student quote below, asynchronous features of discussion forums pushed students to take time to reflect before posting to discussion topics or threads:

I thought the posting (in a discussion forum) was better than the live chat, only because you have more time to think about what you're going to write and to check in and really get into it, think if that's what you're trying to convey, before you post it; whereas in live chat, just like in a normal class, you don't have time to... you're off and speaking spur of the moment and it's not as effective, I don't think, because you're getting first reactions, you're not getting good, hard, solid ideas.

2.2. Use of team private workspaces assists in management of work processes:  Nine courses (33%) provided students with team private workspaces. Team private spaces served the purposes of storing team documents and resources, and exchanging questions and answers among team members.

2.3. Different instructional purposes need tailored functions of discussion forums: This particular study also found that the online MBA program provided instructors with varied types of discussion board assignments in order to support various teamwork activities. In this case study, text-based asynchronous ‘court forums’ were developed for effective role playing activities during which students play the role of plaintiffs, defendants, and judges. One instructor explained that court forums assist in creating real life situations as shown in the quote below:

What I would say is truly interactive is that court forum and it’s just the way that I set up the problem I think. They have to work in small groups... They put together their best arguments and then I require them to post a summary of their argument online. And then after both sides have posted a summary of their argument then I’m always the judge and then we have a group of judges and I will begin by posting some hard questions to both sides. Their lines run separately so the plaintiff and defendants are separate. They can see what each other are doing but they don’t get to post on the other side, which is my goal is to copy what happens in a real legal argument.

2.2. Use of team private workspaces assists in management of work processes:  Nine courses (33%) provided students with team private workspaces. Team private spaces served the purposes of storing team documents and resources, and exchanging questions and answers among team members.

2.3. Different instructional purposes need tailored functions of discussion forums: This particular study also found that the online MBA program provided instructors with varied types of discussion board assignments in order to support various teamwork activities. In this case study, text-based asynchronous ‘court forums’ were developed for effective role playing activities during which students play the role of plaintiffs, defendants, and judges. One instructor explained that court forums assist in creating real life situations as shown in the quote below:

Less successful was the program I used last time called Q and A. You can post a question and then they post an answer but no one can see the answers until they’ve posted. They can’t see other people’s answers… They just wanted to know if they got the right answer. I don’t think I’m going to do that again. I like the discussion forums where everybody can pitch in and read what everybody else says at the time is better.

3. Use of collaboration technologies

Collaborative technologies are defined in this study as tools that serve to enhance the capabilities of team members throughout synchronous interactions. In this study, the usage of one-and two-way synchronous tools in the online MBA program (e.g., chatting tools, video conferencing, LiveMeeting, etc.) was reviewed. Implication on the use of collaborative technologies can be summarized as follows:

3.1. Proper use of chat tools prompts team discussions: Eleven courses (41%) had text-based chatting for class discussions, and five courses (19%) incorporated it into team discussions. In general, students believed that the usefulness of chats rooted from real-time discussion and immediate feedback from peer students and instructors. Providing students with chances to exchange ideas synchronously turned out to be critical to solicit team members to negotiate and make decisions and the following quote illustrates it:

Chat is effective and useful to manage teamwork. We used chat quite a lot…In Angel, yeah, and in fact whenever they have not turned it on for a course and always ask for the professor to turn it on because it is quite useful.

It would have been a benefit to have a chat room. I don't remember which class it was, they didn't have the access of the chat room for that class, they talked about doing it, but they didn't, and so that was harder, when all you could do was email. It does help to have a chat room where you can go in and type sentences, live conversation that way, rather than trying to email, which we did one class.

3.2. Chat discussion requires careful planning and coordination: Students and instructors expressed several difficulties in the use of chat tools similar to the use of conference calls, mentioned earlier. The study findings indicated that issues such as chat-time scheduling across different time zones, limited participation due to traveling and work schedule, slow typing skills for synchronous idea exchanges, small (or limited) text boxes, and no archive log files also hindered instructor use of the chat tools.

Another issue with collaborative technologies raised by instructors and students was flexibility. Instructors want to use specific technical functions or features for their courses. Instructors may want to activate particular tools flexibly to meet their instructional needs as one instructor noted:

The reason I think some of that, my understanding of the chat rooms is that’s more real time discussion and we just really had a group of people that it was difficult to get all at one time. You know, I had someone in Singapore, I had someone in Taiwan, I had someone on a Navy boat somewhere. You know, that’s three out of 15 people, so it was very difficult to establish a time and that’s one of the reasons I wanted the course very flexible so the people could do it at whatever time without all having to be there at a certain time. And I kind of think that’s important for an elective, when they have so many already sort of a rigorous schedule.

3.3. Visualization/awareness information devices helps for better teamwork: Currently, synchronous chats are heavily text-based and offer restricted features. Whiteboards or web cameras were suggested to enhance the sense of presence and simultaneous work. Technical functions for supporting a sense of awareness were suggested for effective use of synchronous discussions. One instructor mentioned the need for more advanced tools coordinating virtual teamwork:

If I’m doing a lecture on inventory costs, I think it would be useful using whiteboard technology and a video camera to have me do what I would do in a classroom, maybe not for everything but for key points, actually go through things on the board, or go through a problem where the problem itself appears in a window on the video screen.

The chat room that we have, it does not tell you whether any of your other colleagues or team members is actually logged in at that point in time or not.  So you don’t really know if somebody is logged in or not… I  know once they get into chat but I may be logged in to the  network and I may be doing something else so if I go to chat and I see that okay you are logged in and then I can just send you a quick note saying I want to chat with you. That would be nice because I have no real contact, don’t know if you’re logged in any more…Our chat is pretty basic. So I think they can upgrade email and chat to give the features that MSN has or email to give the features that Outlook web access has.

Overall, based on the study findings, courses in online MBA programs use a variety of technologies to prompt virtual teaming activities. However, concerns remain that technology use is limited to support the team member’s effort to collaborate merely to communicate. Importantly, the operation of virtual teaming activities does not guarantee the effectiveness and efficiency of the teamwork. As Himmleman (2002) suggested, the different modes of teamwork can work better under specific circumstances depending on team tasks and environmental barriers that students face. However, considering the features of online environments, which technologies are being used and how technologies can support teams in different modes should be taken into consideration.

V.  Discussions

Here we discuss the findings of this comprehensive study. We make suggestions for better use across the technologies to overcome the challenges against the current usage patterns of technology for virtual teamwork.

First, ‘communication technology’ can assist a virtual teaming activity in part, but online instructors must consider how to use it effectively for instructional purposes. This study verified Wingard’s (2004) finding that instructors and students tend to use technologies for message- and information-sharing purposes. As Liu, Lee, Bonk, Magjuka, and Liu (in the press) pointed out that having students exchange information is always easier than engaging in knowledge construction. Students may start to conduct their teamwork by relying on phones and email due to ease and familiarity. Accessibility to these communication tools is high, but they do not necessarily ensure students’ deep engagement and active interactions for collaborating online. Further, phone calls and email do not allow both instructors and students to track and monitor the teamwork process at any time needed. Thus, questions about how to successfully address the use of communication technologies remain to be considered.

Second, online instructors should be aware that the impact of ‘cooperative technology’ on virtual teams varies depending upon their instructional intention. This study’s findings pointed out massive use of cooperative technologies for virtual teaming activities in an online MBA program. Key attributes for cooperative technologies (such as text-based discussion forums or teamwork spaces) include asynchronicity and text-based formats. Such capabilities can be easily seen in most any online course. However, cooperative technologies can be maximized by well-designed instructional activities that can overcome their drawbacks for effective learning. For instance, some features such as time-delay of cooperative technologies could be a barrier to an interactive discussion when students fail to respond to each other.

At the same time, instructors should realize that asynchronous features of discussion forums boast the potential to foster reflective discourse among virtual team members by allowing them enough time to think about and elaborate their ideas before participating in discussions. As described previously, this particular study provided evidence that carefully designed role-based discussions that utilized the delayed nature of cooperative technologies can have an enhanced reflective learning experience. Also, students get chances to reflect on their team learning and performance simply by re-accessing archived messages and documentation. Thus, how instructors design the features of cooperative technologies in their courses determines their successful use.

Third, appropriate use of advanced features of ‘collaboration technologies’ enriches the context of virtual teamwork. Advanced technologies with high media richness enhance educational experiences for online students (Bonk & King, 1998). In the online MBA program of this particular study, one instructor pioneered to experiment with the potential use of a web conferencing tool, LiveMeeting, for synchronous online learning activities. However, the use of LiveMeeting was not popular due to the unfamiliar functions and a lack of understanding of its pedagogical capabilities. In fact, he mainly used it to deliver an audio lecture (i.e., one-way and single channel communications) and was unable to use the majority of the functions to solicit interactive responses from students, implying that advanced web conferencing functions neither ensure teaching and learning, nor promise successful use. This lesson indicates successful online teaching and learning require thorough instructional planning and knowledge on appropriate usage of advanced technologies. Providing instructors with best practices or user guides via faculty workshops and training would also help instructors to have a sense of how they can utilize those advanced technologies in their courses. Without such knowledge, the collaborative technologies may not be effectively used to fully exert the benefits of their technological features.

On the other hand, advancing technology use in an online program requires leadership, risk-taking, and programmatic support from the administrators and staff. For example, the online MBA program of the present study carefully has reviewed the potential use of audio and voice messages such as webcasts and podcasts (Liu et al, in press). Pilot instructors were selected to test small scale uses of new and underutilized technologies. At the same time, the selection and adoption of advanced technologies must carefully consider issues such as accessibility, training, instructor workload, and previous technology experiences of online learners.

In addition, the synchronous attributes of collaboration technologies would be helpful for any stage of the teamwork process—for example, when students need to build team cohesion and human touch by sharing social presence at beginning of teamwork, or when instructors and students need to provide and take real-time feedback.

Fourth, the function specification of technology types should be determined by instructional, not technical viewpoint. General course management systems such as WebCT, Blackboard, Sakai, and Moodle rarely embed specific pedagogical strategies such as role assignments that assist in knowledge sharing, debate, and reflection (Bonk & Dennen, 2003). The present study provides evidence that well integrated pedagogical functions within a course management system can enhance the effectiveness of collaboration. Text-based court forums in the online MBA program of the present study can be a good example of how technologies work as cognitive tools. The program modified traditional text-based discussion forums and tailored them into a form of court forums for role play, which were highly regarded as effective by both instructors and students. What we should remember is that this court forum worked asynchronously the same as an ordinary discussion forum but instructors and students reported that its functions were tailored well to fit into role-playing activities. As this example indicates, the strength of technologies can be maximized when instructors or course designers plan for the use of technologies according to their instructional goals and intentions.

Another good instructional example from this online MBA program is the tool that supports team assignment options in the course management system. With team builder tools, instructors could assign teams easily or allow students to self-select their preferred teams. The use of team builder tools is a prime example of how technologies could reduce instructor’s administrative workload while enhancing the self-control of online learners by giving them options to choose their teams.

Fifth, the nature of team tasks should be taken into consideration when instructors select particular technologies. Each level of technologies—communication, cooperation, and collaboration—has its particular strengths and weaknesses. To effectively integrate technologies into pedagogical activities, an instructor should carefully consider the features and tasks that support appropriate learning activities.

Of course, sometimes the strengths of technologies, such as the real-time feedback of a chat discussion, could be a weakness in another context due to the requirements for synchronous accessibility and the preparation time required. It is important for online instructors to carefully balance considerations of different technological attributes with students’ learning environments. As noted in the following quote, some instructors avoid the uses of innovative synchronous tools due to concerns about accessibility while students seem to have interest in engaging in a chat with online instructors:

I steered away from online live chats because I have students all over the world and I don’t like to be time bound and they don’t like to be time bound. I haven’t missed it and no one has ever complained about not having chat. I think I could probably do a better job of office hours. But I’m always answering emails and if it’s an email question that I think the class would have I always post it.  So I don’t know that the online chat really would be better.

Sixth, online instructors should know that cultural variability impacts the use of particular technologies for collaborating online. Technologies are often called ‘cognitive tools’ (Jonassen, n.d.) that support the cognitive engagement of students, and further, Crook (1994) extends the application of technologies as a ‘cultural amplifier’.

Often, cultural orientations of students may drive their behaviors into different communication behaviors, and may enable or hinder the facilitation of interactions via particular technologies. In this sense, the usage pattern of technologies can be influenced by cultural orientation of students. For instance, students in collectivist cultures value social interactions to build intimacy within teams (Massey, Montoya-Weiss, Hung, & Ramesh, 2001). They feel comfortable with high contexts of team work situations that provide students with verbal and non-verbal clues and information. Technologies that allow students more than two channels of message delivery (e.g., electronic whiteboard or video conferencing, etc.) would assist in enhancing contextual cues in a similar fashion to face-to-face meetings. On the other hand, students in individually-oriented cultures tend not to endure the state of uncertainty and conflict, and soon they jump directly into discussions and debates (Massey, Montoya-Weiss, Hung, & Ramesh, 2001). Their straightforward communication patterns make them get along with lean technologies that provide with few clues of communications (e.g., email, fax, etc.).

In terms of technologies that may cause different reactions from different cultural orientations, instructors need to learn the cultural differentiation of their students since it can impact the effectiveness of virtual teaming activities. It can be suggested that establishing team norms and ground rules of what, when, and how to use technological tools for teamwork would help to reduce unnecessary tension and misinterpretation among team members (Massey et al., 2001).

 In summary, each technology has its function. It is not clear-cut what technologies to use and when to use the technologies. Whether we will have the balanced use of three technologies depends upon how instructors design the virtual teaming activities from a pedagogical perspective. See Table 2 for the features, advantages, challenges, and issues related to communication, cooperation, and collaboration technologies.

Table 2
Comparison of different interactive technologies




Communication technology

Analog devices

Access available at any time

Easy to use

Familiar functions

Impersonal media

Ambiguity of text messages (email)


Asynchronous electronic communications

Synchronous analog communications

Heavily depend upon information transmission

Limited access to archived information and conversations

Limited communicational clues and contexts

Cooperation technology

Able to support various instructional activities

Allowing time to reflect and elaborate thinking

Effective to avoid repetitive questions through email

Impersonal media

Ambiguity of text messages

Time delay due to asynchronicity

Limited communicational clues and contexts

Needed for detailed planning for function specification

Collaboration technology

Real-time exchanging opinions

Prompt feedback

Providing high contextual clues

Prompting dual coding of information

Possible to be distracted

Work awareness information required

Information on teamwork progress required


VI.  Conclusion

Overall, the review of interactive technologies for virtual teaming activities shows that many technological tools are embedded in the course management systems. In practice, most online behaviors of virtual teams fall into the usage patterns of communication and cooperation. Accordingly, in this study, technologies that were in heavy use were those assisting communicative and cooperative activities. The actual use of collaboration technologies reported in the present study was relatively low, compared to the other two categories of technologies. It is natural that virtual team members, at the beginning of the teamwork process, tend to start communicating and distributing information.

However, what to remember is the fact that communication behaviors of team members and the novelty of technologies have numerous constraints and limitations that hinder team productivity and ultimate deliverables. Communication behaviors are necessary to build a basic foundation in teamwork environments, but they do not always improve higher-order thinking and collective knowledge-building among team members. Consequently, teamwork for learning purposes should go beyond information transmission, labor division, and working independently. 

As Kirschner and Van Bruggen (2004) stress, simple implementation of virtual teaming activities does not guarantee the effectiveness and efficiency of the teamwork. It is more important to guide appropriate usage of technological tools to support the whole process of collaborative learning so it can eventually lead virtual team members to improve team performance.

In this study, the use of technologies to promote virtual teaming activities was examined. The results indicate that teaming approaches have been widely used in online courses. The perceptions of instructors and students have been slowly transformed to understand the dynamics of online environments. However, sufficient faculty training support must be provided to speed up this transformation within distance education. Also, the success of online courses depends on the appropriate use of pedagogy and related technologies, not just on the introduction of technologies themselves.  It is time to change the focus, alter the conversation, and shift the funding, from an emphasis on which technologies are now available to examples of interesting and effective pedagogical use of such technologies for online collaboration among participants distributed across geographic settings.


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About the Authors

Dr. Seung-hee Lee is a research fellow at Kelley Direct Online Programs at Indiana University. Her major research interests are online collaboration, reflective technologies, e-learning in higher education, and online moderating/mentoring. She can be contacted at seuselee@indiana.edu.

Dr. Richard Magjuka is a professor of business administration in the Kelley School of Business. He has been the faculty chair of Kelley Direct since its inception. His primary research interests are the design and delivery of effective online education and in online pedagogy. He can be contacted at rmagjuka@indiana.edu.

Xiaojing Liu is a research fellow at Kelley Direct Online Programs at Indiana University. Her research interest focuses on online learning, information systems, communities of practices, and knowledge management. Her contact information is xliu@indiana.edu.

Dr. Curt J. Bonk is a Professor of Educational Psychology as well as Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University. Dr. Bonk is also a Senior Research Fellow with the DOD's Advanced Distributed Learning Lab. He has received the CyberStar Award from the Indiana Information Technology Association, Most Outstanding Achievement Award from the U.S. Distance Learning Association, and Most Innovative Teaching in a Distance Education Program from the State of Indiana. He can be contacted at cjbonk@indiana.edu.

End Notes

[1] Chinowsky and Rojas (2003) classified virtual teaming into interactive technologies of collaboration. However, this study does not see virtual teaming as technological tool itself, but it is an intentional instructional activity.

[2] 1= strongly disagree, 5= strongly agree

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