Virtual Teamwork

For a group of remote, rural school districts, web-based collaborative projects
are opening up new vistas of learning opportunities.

Virtual TeamworkSITTING DOWN WITH A COHORT OF GE executives after a late-afternoontour of the company's facility in Charlottesville, VA, agroup of educators from the surrounding region couldnot have known what was in store for them. The meetingwas one in a round of stops the contingent maderoutinely. These scheduled give-and-takes allowededucators to inform businesses about what schoolswere doing to prepare students to go out into theworld, while businesses could tell the educators whatthey were looking for from new graduates.

But the meeting at GE went a decidedly different way. Expecting to hear, as they generally did, about the need to address some particular technical or vocational content in their curriculum, the educators listened as the GE group began to talk about more abstract skills, about the need for students to learn to work in teams-- and not just teams within their classrooms or schools, but ones whose participants are separated geographically and rarely, if ever, encounter each other in a face-to-face meeting but instead meet only virtually. None of the educators had even heard of virtual teamwork before.

As the executives explained,"virtual collaborations" are at the heart of the way business is now being done. Sharing documents, running product tests over time zones, real-time discussions-- all are essential to participating and thriving in the global market. A typical team today at GE could span two or three continents and must call upon all of the electronic resources available to it in order to share technical drawings, presentations, notes, and ideas, bridging distances and language barriers.

"Over the past 10 years, our company has gone from having a bulk of workers in Charlottesville to this year tallying more employees outside of the US than inside," says GE Human Resources Director J.B. Mitchell, who was among the group that met with the local educators.

The meeting, held five years ago, turned out to be the catalyst for a determined effort to create virtual collaborations across six rural school systems in central Virginia. Districts in Fluvanna, Goochland, Greene, Louisa, Nelson, and Orange counties had already teamed up in 2000 to launch a regional high school-based project called the Blue Ridge Virtual Governor's School (BRVGS), which brings participating students and teachers in those six districts together for shared coursework and assignments, with a focus on math, science, and technology.

Since its inception, the initiative had incorporated videoconferencing tools and online discussion spaces to help generate a sense of community among BRVGS students and teachers, but the collaborative capabilities of the technologies were not being used to their fullest advantage, and so neither was the program. A group of students at one high school might make a presentation, and another group at a different high school would watch it via videoconference. They were sharing but not collaborating. The lessons taken from the afternoon spent in the GE boardroom inspired the BRVGS educators who attended the meeting to extend virtual schooling to the next level: yearlong, cross-district team projects.

The key was using the technologies they were already working with, but in a more advanced, accelerated way. For example, the online discussion boards, rather than simply being a place for students to post comments, became a means for collaborative academic exercises, facilitating conversation that could not take place in the classroom. Teams were formed that mixed the students from the six counties, and students were given"starter" topics that would serve to launch them, hopefully, into a constructive online dialogue.

In one of the initial discussions, 10th-grade students in a biotechnology course were given a hypothetical ethical issue to consider: A cure for malaria was found, but it could only be tested on people in third-world countries. Students took eagerly to the project and quickly formed what the educators had hoped would result: an authentic online community of learners-- conversing, interacting, and reacting amongst each other. A log of the discussion shows students communicating throughout the school week and even on the weekend; one exchange occurred at 10:27 p.m. on a Friday night.

The success of the project refuted doubts some educators had that the students would show the same enthusiasm for using Web 2.0 tools to form learning communities as they do for using those same tools to create social communities, such as on Facebook. There were also concerns that students would contribute comments, but not go so far as to react to each other's posts and create a real dialogue. They did that and more, even directing each other to resources on the topic at hand. In a survey conducted by BRVGS, student feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Ninety-one percent of the students said that reading the opinions of others via the online discussion boards helped them learn about the subject and helped to clarify their own opinions. Nearly three-fourths (71 percent) felt that they had more of a chance to contribute to the discussion when it was based online as opposed to occurring inside a classroom.

The positive response set the stage for the growth of virtual collaborations within BRVGS. Now in its eighth year, the program has several major cross-county team projects going throughout the school year. Students employ web-based calendars, documents, spreadsheets, and presentation software to create and manage information. One significant technological addition has been Google Docs, which brings into real-time contact students who would not be able to work together otherwise. The application allows users to create an online space of by-invitation-only collaborators. Students can work on the same document synchronously, seeing each other's edits and commenting back and forth. And Google Docs archives all chats, so students can't do anything outside the view of their teachers.

A log of the discussion shows students communicatingthroughout the school week and even on the weekend-- one exchange occurred at 10:27 p.m. on a Friday night.

One project that is creating virtual collaborative opportunities for BRVGS students is run through Virginia Tech's Partnership for Research and Education in Plants (PREP), which enables the students to work in cross-county teams as well as with researchers at the university's Fralin Biotechnology Center. Plant scientists at the university are seeking to map the genome of the Arabidopsis plant, which, if achieved, scientists say would unlock the DNA of every other plant species. BRVGS student teams have joined together cross-district to collect data for the project. The university gives the students seeds to grow the plant, and they then gather research on it. Over the course of a semester, the students upload data with comments to a shared spreadsheet and use Google Docs to chat about the progress of their experiments. With team members conducting the same experiments in different school districts, comparing results is crucial, and using chatting and shared online spaces is essential to their work.

After concluding their research, the students will use their data to create reports and spreadsheets for presentation to the scientists at Virginia Tech. The results will become part of the genome project's larger database. As David Lally, the Fralin Center's PREP coordinator, says, virtual collaboration is bringing students into"the emerging story of scientific discovery."

So how would the GE group that got the ball rolling respond to these efforts by BRVGS educators to engage students in virtual collaborations? Favorably, no doubt. GE itself uses shared online space for the purposes of working remotely and collaboratively. When demand for remote sharing of presentations, policies, and highly technical and sensitive information became overwhelming, the company developed its own file-sharing network called GE Folders. Much the way students use Google Docs, users of the GE tool upload document files and can select collaborators from a global list of employees, allowing controlled access to the project.

Having advanced from asynchronous online dialogue to realtime document sharing, BRVGS educators are looking to take virtual collaboration even further. They are now giving consideration to the potential for using wikis to enrich their students' work. What's important is that the students have shown that, provided with the same technologies that they use on their own time, they are willing to engage in online learning communities as eagerly as they participate in social networking communities.

"We are looking at ways to get more buy-in for the use of the kinds of tools that kids regularly use," BRVGS Director Marc Carraway says."We're really moving into collaborative information flow as a basis for student learning."

Karen Kellison is a university professor of instructional technology and the former director of the Blue Ridge Virtual Governor'sSchool.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.