Virtual Teams in Education

The future of business is not in brick and mortar institutions as historically viewed. The proliferation and miniaturization of communications mediums, cellular telephone, fax, Internet, personal data devices, and lap top computers, make offices available where people are – not where the office is.

Carpenter (1998) wrote the internet is more versatile for communication than any medium available today. People can interact with individuals or groups, they can identify by name, pseudonym, or be anonymous. She says the internet is “…a virtual community where people meet, engage in discourse, become friends, fall in love, and develop all of the relationships that are developed in physical communities” (pg. 1).

However, the internet may not be a panacea. The internet goes beyond technology into social interaction. Organizations face a dilemma of encouraging successful interactions and community building online. Statistics suggest almost ten million people work in virtual offices and that 40 percent of large organizations have policies on telecommuting. Yet, Carpenter (1998), cited above, says virtual employment equals only seven to ten percent of the work force.

Why hasn’t the virtual office flourished? Sociologists suggest it is the need for informal interaction – office banter. Organizations are stubborn to accept virtual teams believing team projects work best carried out over conference tables and virtual workers can only participate in individual assignments. Still other organizations believe virtual workers do not receive adequate supervision. However, is the problem supervision or trust?

Kohrell (2005), an adjunct professor at Bellevue University, is president of Technology As Promised. He is a specialist in developing virtual teams and addresses developing trust on virtual teams. He explains virtual trust in simple terms. Virtual trust is getting on an airplane, not knowing the air traffic controllers, yet trusting they are doing their jobs correctly. He explains building virtual trust through communication – frequently, with integrity, with certainty and predictability.

Other data, taken with Kohrell’s, also supports the economics of the virtual office. Verma (2005) offers some information that shows senior executives from Europe, Asia, and the Unites States report cost savings (69 percent) and increased productivity (64 percent) when using telecommuting. Verma cites comments of Joe Roitz, AT&T. Roitz said, “Telework alone generates over $150 million annually in productivity increases, real estate savings, and enhanced retention for AT&T.” These statistics suggest business recognize change and develop strategies for successful change.

Tucker, Kao, and Verma (2005) write there are trends in employment that organizations cannot ignore. One point they make is the work force globally is getting smaller. They also recognize that cultural norms are different now, more loose. Adding to the mix is more freedom for people to move globally. They point out there are personnel trends that organizations can count on

1. Smaller and less sufficiently skilled

2. Increasingly global

3. Highly virtual

4. Vastly diverse, and

5. Autonomous and empowered

They conclude that leadership focus within these trends “demand a new generation of talent management.” This new talent management has to take some strategic steps to manage the new work force in future oriented organizations. Those steps are:

1. Predictive Workforce Monitoring and Strategic Talent Decision Making

2. Flexible and Anticipatory Talent Sourcing

3. Customized and Personalized Rewards and Communications

4. Distributed and Influential Leadership

5. Unified and Compassionate Cultures

Computer-mediated Communication (CMC)

It is important to discuss CMC as virtual workers depend on – rely on – computer-mediated communication. Jones (1998) cites Patton (1986) in discussion about highway building as a means to connect people to one another. Patton observed that highways have not connected us rather increased our sense of separateness. Cities are divided, neighborhoods split, city intimacy destroyed. From this negative view, Jones concludes the internet may actually do what highways failed to do

Computer-mediated communication, it seams, will do by way of electronic pathways what cement roads were unable to do, namely, connect us rather than atomize us, put us at the controls of a “vehicle” and yet not detach us from the rest of the world. (pg. 3)

CMC offers new realms for social scientists to study. Traditionally, social scientists observed communities within certain identified boundary. However, new cyber societies exist without bounds and determination of membership in cyber society does not satisfy traditional categories given community.

Education in Cyber Society

What does this mean in terms of education? The United States Department of Education (US-DOE) provides a look into higher education statistics for twelve months 2000 to 2001. US-DOE figures from that period show 56 percent (2320) post-secondary two- and four-year schools had online courses. Another twelve percent desire to go online within the next three years. Finally, 31 percent said they would not go online. Clearly, two-thirds of colleges and universities have or want online educational opportunities for students. What does this mean for faculty? The following paragraph addresses that question.

The Higher Learning Commission accredits Bellevue University in Nebraska. It has an online presence offering 17 undergraduate degree completion programs online and 7 graduate degree programs online. The College of Professional Studies (CPS) of Bellevue University administers all of the undergraduate degree programs. CPS administers three of the seven graduate degrees, MBA and Master of Arts in Management reside in the College of Business, and MS Computer Information Systems and MS Management of Information Systems reside in the College of Information Technology. Although the College of Arts and Sciences administers no online degrees, it does administer several course clusters and individual online courses. Therefore, Bellevue University is an example of an institution highly oriented to the online student.

Online, mostly adult learner, students equal approximately 40 percent of the University population. Bellevue University also has both traditional four-year campus students and non-traditional in class adult learners making up the rest of the University student population. A boast made during the 2004/2005 academic year was that Bellevue University has students in all 24 time zones around the world and the North and South Poles.

CPS accounts for the largest number of faculty members. Of CPS faculty, about 150 are adjunct and one-third of those are faculty members at distant locations teaching online (information provided the Assistant College Administrator).

However, this is not unique to Bellevue University. A web search of colleges with online offerings returns dozens of institutions. Narrowing a web search to fully accredited schools with online offerings returns numerous hits. Well known in the online arena are University of Phoenix, Capella, Nova Southeastern, and Walden. Among these, University of Phoenix is very aggressive in both student and faculty recruitment. It is not unusual for students to transfer between online schools searching for lower tuition rates and/or more liberal credit transfer policies. In addition, it is likely an adjunct professor may instruct in multiple universities.

Online Faculty Interviews

Of the about 50 online distant faculty members at Bellevue University, five responded to invitations for phone or email interviews. Another interview with an online adjunct that lives in the Omaha metro area serves to validate other faculty comments. One distant faculty member does teach at two other institutions, one online, and one face to face. Finally, I will submit personal observations, my experiences, as an online adjunct, face-to-face instructor and one that taught in multiple institutions.

All those interviewed were unanimous in answering why they are adjunct college professors, they like teaching. The responses varied from “I like sharing what I’ve learned,” to “It is fun to see, through their postings, how they (students) grow and change over the year period of a degree program.” To follow up, they answered teaching online is new to them, an interesting way to link students, and a way to connect people geographically separate for a common goal (education).

One interviewee, a medical doctor in Indiana teaches healthcare administration at Bellevue University to “stay connected with nurses and other medical administrators. A hard lesson for doctors to learn is they don’t run anything.” In addition to teaching at Bellevue University, he developed a course adopted into the Master of Healthcare Administration in CPS. He shared that he also is a mentor for third and fourth year medical residents working to pass their medical boards. He does not teach in this role, rather facilitates medical residents’ leaning and board preparation. He related that this role requires developing a trust and trusting relationship between him and his mentored doctor. He said he always begins the mentoring relationship in a face-to-face environment before moving it to telephone or email. He told that teaching online and handling student problems and misunderstandings is much less trying than mentoring new doctors.

The local interview, conducted in person, was with the executive assistant to the university president. He used to teach in the classroom; however, schedule demands took him out of class. Teaching online lets him keep his connection to students while maintaining a busy travel schedule.

When asked why they applied to teach at Bellevue University, the answers ranged widely. One instructor, an Army retired Chief Warrant Officer, began teaching a year after graduating with a master degree from Bellevue. The university approached him rather than him initiating an application. Another, now teaching at the Atlanta campus of the University of Georgia, and previously at the U.S. Air Force Academy, applied to Bellevue because of the University’s close ties to military students. One respondent is an empty nester, disabled from her nursing profession, and wanted to stay active pre-retirement. There was not a consistent answer to this question except when tying it to their enjoyment of teaching.

All those interviewed are online instructors, therefore, virtual to their students. All reported using email and telephone as primary communication devices with their students. Additionally, they all use the Bellevue University Cyberactive® learning environment powered by Blackboard to conduct classes. They reported highs of 40 percent and lows of ten percent use of email for student communication. All reported using the telephone to contact students; however, telephone use was a low five to ten percent. Low telephone use is not unexpected considering the worldwide locations of BU students.

Probing deeper, email use is actually higher from instructor to student. Within the Cyberactice® environment there is a tab titled “Communication.” Within this link is an option to send an email to all or select users. All adjuncts confirmed this option is the choice they use to send messages to individuals, select groups, or an entire class. When probed, instructors agreed they use this email option regularly. After another query into percentage of communication by email using the Cyberactive® email option, instructors replied their email communication is higher, up to 50 percent. It is important to clarify that instructors did not directly associate email in the Cyberactive® environment with other email engines.

There were very broad concerns expressed by the interviewees and all were technical, from needing more technical support to wanting less technical support. This question needed more clarification. The respondents confirmed their meaning of technical support as surrounding the electronic classroom. Although all online instructors must complete the Online Facilitators Course, four of the five realized their attention to it was not the best possible. Challenged for why the four did not participate more in the facilitator course, they admitted to “filling a square” to teach online. All replied there are times when they all call or email the Cyberactive® Help Desk for assistance.

Another unanimous concern was how well prepared students are to enter an electronic classroom. Each respondent related at least one story of a student ill prepared to study online. Instructor receives a profile of each student in class, therefore a follow up question on student age suggested age was less a concern than students’ career and regular use of computers for email, topic research, and understanding of inter- versus intra-net.

Feeling as Part of a Team

The adjuncts all feel they are part of a work team. Specifically, they felt part of their work team, part of the Cyberactive® classroom group, but not closely connected to the University. The reason given is distance from the physical location – Bellevue, Nebraska. They did report steps taken by the College of Professional Studies as helping them become more connected. One example they all like is the weekly email of the campus bulletin, another is periodic email messages of faculty development seminars. Faculty development seminars are now video taped, converted to digital media, and available in streaming video online or DVD format mailed.

Supporting some of the research reported earlier, the respondents felt disconnected from the University and more connected if they could make trips to the campus, meet with program directors, deans, and fellow faculty members. Clarifying this point, they did not feel under supervised, rather did not feel a personal (personally) connected. An expectation was that those now adjuncts who were Bellevue University students would feel more connected. While the former students felt more connected, they too did not feel a close bond.

The discussion moved to questions of leadership. Specifically asked was how well do they know (know of) the University leadership team. All knew names and positions of the president, provost, deans, and program directors. They did not know any of the names associated with positions of senior administrative people and senior people outside their particular college. Asked if they knew any names of board members, each knew U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel is a board member. Others knew names of benefactors thinking they were board members.

Tying the interviews together, the discussion turned to specifics of communication. The focus at this stage was the level of interdepartmental communication compared to intradepartmental communication. Those interviewed commented that intradepartmental communication was good. Adjuncts knew, through email and/or telephone communication, their program director, some or all the department faculty. All reported a lack of knowledge outside their program area. An adjunct in healthcare administration is unlikely to cross-communicate with faculty from management or leadership. An instructor in business administration will not know anyone teaching in human resources or security management. Distant adjuncts in the College of Professional Studies seem isolated from faculty members of other colleges. Generally, faculty members in one college do not teach in other colleges.

The interviewees made recommendations to improve communication ranging from more email communication to making trips to the campus to meet the staff. Trips to campus from distant locations seemed impractical from a cost aspect because such a trip would not be at university expense. Asked how to improve electronic communication, all agreed more is better. Citing an example of missed opportunity, they said the university produces a faculty roster and places it on the server “shared drive.” However, distant locations do not have access to the internal system.

Personal Experience

Stated early in this paper, I am an online adjunct but live in the community the university calls home. This gives me a different perspective because I can personally interact with instructors from different colleges and programs. After five years in administration as a graduate enrollment counselor, I developed personal networks with many senior program directors and deans. For nearly the same period, I was an adjunct, first in the College of Arts and Sciences and now in CPS. I taught Organizational Communication in a face-to-face classroom and Leadership online.

Validating the interviewees’ comments, communication to adjuncts has been limited. One limiting factor was the capability of the university email server to support several hundred email addresses. This problem is resolved with the installation of a new larger email server. Another limiting factor was not all adjuncts had a “(name) @” university email address. An initiative of the Quality Council was requiring all adjuncts have an internal email address and remote access to the email server. This initiative is now complete with separate distributions for “all campus,” “all adjuncts,” and “all (college specific) adjuncts.”

An advantage to being an online adjunct in the same community where the university is located is proximity. With proximity, there is access to many in leadership positions and interaction with peers. A closer connection with faculty peers allows a support system to develop face-to-face that a distant adjunct cannot as easily develop. Proximity allows faster communication and reaction to communication. Closeness permits attendance to faculty development live rather than streaming video or DVD.

While the advantages of proximity seem favorable, there are some downsides. There are greater expectations that a local adjunct spends time on campus when there primary job allows. The faculty resource center offers an adjunct an office environment where one can have the office time expected. College meeting attendance by local adjuncts is not mandated; however, it is more favorable to attend. Those operating at a distance desire to attend meetings and cannot have it.

Conclusion

The interview process with adjunct instructors working at a distance offer supporting data to the statistics reported earlier in this paper. The adjuncts interviewed are part time virtual employees who feel less a part of the University team than someone local. They reported incomplete communication with and knowledge of many key leadership people.

Communication seems the center of disconnect. The Academic Quality Improvement Process also recognized this problem and implemented institutional change to tie all members to campus life. Although more effort is underway for broader communication, distant employees do not have access to local systems through remote means.

Considering these elements and considering the U. S. Department of Education’s statistics, online education is likely to flourish. Bellevue University attracts students from around the world with many of them earning degrees online from their home countries.

Despite the drawbacks, virtual professors as virtual team members are successful at Bellevue University because of the expressed desire to teach and watch their students grow and learn. The professionalism and expertise these professors exhibit in the online community of students supports the data from industry executives indicating improved productivity and cost savings.

Pfeffer (1998) identifies the use of sub-contractors in the work force. Adjuncts are sub-contractors. The adjuncts serve in non-traditional ways contrary to how professors previously served. It is apparent that education is no different from other industries using virtual workers. Virtual workers, like temporary workers, feel less connected – not given the same level of training.

In interview, establishing trust was critical to two adjuncts. In-person trust is much easier to develop than in virtual relationships. Bell (2002) says trust is a leap of faith and places trust below truth, “… caringly frank and compassionately straightforward… in pursuit of clean communication” (pg. 9).

An indirect conclusion from the interviews highlights that mentoring a virtual adjunct may help develop a sense of team participation through greater knowledge and understanding of the institutions vision and values. By developing greater emersion into the vision and values of the system, adjuncts may want to be more aware of those people filling leadership roles. Successful virtual workers need the same assistance and opportunity for growth as the worker inside the brick and mortar institution.

References

Bell, C.R. (2002). Managers as Mentors: Building Partnership for Learning (2nd edition). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Carpenter, J. L. (Fall Semester 1998). Building Community in the Virtual Workplace. Online at http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/fallsem98/final_papers/Carpenter.html

David Kohrell (personal communication, September 18, 2005) noting virtual team performance.

Jones, S. G. (1998). Cybersociety 2.0: Revisiting Computer-Mediated Communication and Community. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishers.

Kohrell, D. (2005). Effective Virtual Teams [PowerPoint presentation]. PMI North Carolina: Technology As Promised.

Marilyn Urquhart (personal communication, October 3, 2005) noting total number of adjuncts and number of adjuncts teaching online from distributed locations.

Pfeffer, J. (1998). The Human Equation: Building profits by putting people first. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Tuker, E., Kao, T., and Verma, N. (2005). Next-Generation Talent Management: Insights on How Workforce Trends are Changing the Face of Talent Management. Business Credit 107, 7. 20-27.

U. S. Department of Education (2001). Washington, DC. Online at [http://www.usdoe.gov].

Verma, N. (2005). Making the Most of Virtual Work. WorldatWork Journal, 14, 2. 15-23.