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Virtual teams
making the online classroom a learning organization

By Edward Volchok / August 2008

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We live in an era in which the pace of change is accelerating, and competition is increasingly fierce. Sadly, most organizations do not adapt quickly enough to meet the demands of their changing climates. In 1990 just before the dawn of online education, Peter M. Senge published his seminal book on learning organizations, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. Senge argues that to thrive in our unpredictable world an organization's only sustainable advantage is the ability to learn about changing political, economic, social, and technological forces faster than its competitors.

Take a look at The Fortune 500, a list synonymous with sound management, financial prowess, and stability. Yet, a quick comparison of the 1977 list with the 2007 list is revealing. The majority of firms on the former had fallen off three decades later. Why? One explanation is the inability to adjust business models to the changing marketplace. Organizations that master learning disciplines survive because they are nimble. When applying Senge's five learning disciplines in the classroom, the goal is to prepare students to become lifelong learners who are capable of contributing to the sustainability and vitality of the organizations they belong to. In this article, I will discuss how these disciplines apply to elearning. And, I will argue how virtual teams are critical for building a successful course that nurtures lifelong learners.

My Story

I have always admired the passion, stamina, and discipline of lifelong learners. I have witnessed these qualities in them again and again. As a consultant, my partners and I led training sessions to teach "old dog" sales representatives new tricks. Most learned with alacrity and quickly mastered our lessons. Until recently, I had only read the occasional article on learning organizations. I then started to read more deeply and came upon Senge's The Fifth Discipline.

Learning organizations are proficient at two types of learning: "adaptive" learning and "generative" learning. To survive, an organization must solve short-term problems. This is the realm of adaptive learning. But, what sets learning organizations apart from other institutions is generative learning. Generative learning enhances the capacity to create. Senge describes the foundations of a learning organization, as generative learning requiring the mastery of five disciplines:

  • Systems Thinking (The discipline that integrates the other four)
  • Personal Mastery
  • Shared Vision
  • Mental Models
  • Team Learning

I was immediately struck by its relevance for teaching in virtual classrooms. Two related ideas occurred to me: 1) A successful online class is a microcosm of a learning organization; and 2) Virtual team projects are instrumental in achieving an online course's learning objectives as they create a vibrant interaction between students and the instructor and among students. These interactions overcome the solitary nature of online instruction.

Systems Thinking: The Unifying Discipline

Systems thinking is the integrating discipline, the "conceptual cornerstone" of organizational learning. It elevates its practitioners from the reactive, adaptive learning stance of who did what to whom. Systems thinking seeks structural explanations that will help learners see the "dynamic complexity" of situations in which cause and effect are not readily apparent and that take considerable time for the effects to manifest themselves. When skillfully practiced, systems thinking leads to a robust awareness of the interconnections behind complex systems. Without systems thinking, generative learning is impossible, and organizations that lack generative learning skills are destined for mediocre performance at best.

Can we expect students to master systems thinking in any single class? Clearly not, this is a lifelong endeavor. What, then, can we expect to achieve with regard to developing students' systems thinking skills? Well, we can expect some fledgling progress in their development of a critical awareness of how the complex systems we live and work in operate.

Real learning entails a fundamental shift in one's thinking. Senge calls this transformation a "metanoia." It is not easy to achieve metanoia in a virtual classroom. To foster true learning—the development of critical thinking—rather than the transfer of a few information morsels, students must engage in all five disciplines. Based on my experience, the best way to achieve this is through team projects. With the instructor's guidance, students confront the curriculum in the company—"the telepresence"—of their classmates. Students become more than a passive audience. They become active practitioners. They learn by doing. By interactively immersing students in the curriculum, they are more likely to retain their knowledge than when they merely listen to lectures, read texts, and cram for exams.

Personal Mastery

According to Senge, "personal mastery is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively." Personal mastery entails an on-going struggle, a creative tension, between personal goals and objective reality. Personal mastery lies at the heart of generative learning. Generative learners are more than skilled problem-solvers; they become goal-seeking visionaries as well.

The process of personal mastery requires a dispassionate appraisal of our objective circumstances and continual clarification of what matters to us. This is a tall order. We are all easily distracted from our vision and prone to distort reality. In my experience, lifelong learners labor to master their personal mastery even if they backslide occasionally. They delay gratification in pursuit of their goals. They willingly sweat and toil to produce the future they desire. The online classroom is thus an ideal venue for lifelong learners to pursue their self-creation projects, as it is far more accommodating to their busy schedules than the strict calendars of the traditional classroom.

My online students typically seek careers as project managers in "matrix" organizations, where individuals report to a departmental head and, on particular projects or individuals are part of cross-functional teams lead by project managers. To achieve this personal vision of becoming a project manager, students must develop a profound understanding of the systems in which they operate along with the skills to lead cross-functional teams. Embedding the curriculum in team projects helps students build proficiency in all learning disciplines.

Building Shared Vision

Closely related to personal mastery is the matter of building a shared vision. A personal vision is, of course, important, but we live our lives in groups. There must be synergy between our personal vision and the organizations in which we participate, because people rarely achieve their personal visions without a community.

Moving from a personal vision to a shared vision requires inspired leadership, whether it is in a corporation or a classroom. Senge offers sage advice: Abandon the tired notion that the leader—the boss or the instructor—can impose a "shared vision." A shared vision does not happen by the instructor's fiat. Learning organizations are not authoritarian. Issuing mission statements or directives from on high cannot instill enthusiastic commitment. Rather, shared visions are powerful because they reflect and draw on the personal aspirations of the group's members. While a wise instructor cannot dictate a genuine shared vision, he or she can promote opportunities that help the class galvanize its shared vision. Here are three suggestions:

  • Set lofty goals. Lofty goals are not unrealistic. They are inspiring because they require students to stretch. And, when students have the opportunity to achieve new heights, they get excited. This excitement will spread and reinforce the shared vision.
  • Get students to "talk" to each other. For students to promulgate the vision they must "converse." While online classrooms lack the flaming aggression that commonly plagues listservs, students using online discussion boards for individual assignments are remarkably uncritical. They are reluctant to engage in free, open, and probing examinations of assumptions embedded into classmates' answers. I have often wondered if this is because students have an implicit bargain with classmates not to pose difficult questions to each other. Vision-shaping conversations, however, can occur online during team projects. And, these projects get students engaged with one another in fashioning solutions to assignments. They do so on a deeper level and, therefore, build a shared vision and focus attention on developing the other learning disciplines.
  • Promote a positive shared vision. Instructors must be demanding. But, they need not rely on fear as the primary motivator. Fear of failure—a low grade, losing your job, lack of success in the marketplace—is a powerful motivator in the short-term. But, true learning organizations rely on positive shared visions and positive ideas of personal mastery for achieving long-term goals. Hectoring students makes them fearful and defensive, not creative. Focusing on students' aspirations rather than their fears will empower students as lifelong learners who seek to thrive, as opposed to beaten souls who see life as a series of crises.

Mental Models

Mental models, according to Senge, are "deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures and images that inform how we understand the world and how we take action." Mental models can be common prejudices or sophisticated heuristics. Mental models are not bad per se. We need our mental models to make sense of our world. But, to see reality more clearly, we must continually challenge our mental models, as they are often static and present obstacles to understanding a complex and changing world.

Instructors naturally introduce new mental models to students. For these models to be useful, students must develop a critical view of how these frameworks both enlighten and blind. Instructors must also expose and challenge students' unexpressed assumptions. In my marketing class at Stevens Institute of Technology, I introduce many mental models throughout team projects including analysis of competitors. The focus on competition can have both positive and negative consequences. An organization can develop a truly compelling point of difference in the marketplace, which requires generative learning. Or, it can lead to an organization that is prone to merely react to competitors and to events caused by forces it cannot control, which is the heart of adaptive learning. But in a learning organization, actions are motivated by shared vision, which allows us to embrace change. Without the support of systems thinking and a shared vision, mental models doom us to adaptive, not generative, learning.

Team Learning

The online learning environment can be lonely. Students lack face-to-face meetings with their instructor or classmates. Students need interaction. Podcasted lectures do not address this problem. Team projects fill this need by demanding that students interact with one another. With team projects, students begin to feel connected to their teammates and classmates. My students typically report that getting their teams working together was tumultuous but extremely rewarding. Team projects help students achieve curricular learning objectives and build the skills and attitudes that lifelong learners need to succeed long after the course ends because they require students to overcome their solitude by engaging as a member of a learning community.

Successful virtual teams, like all winning teams, have two dimensions: thinking insightfully about complex issues; and acting in an innovative and coordinated manner. Learning teams develop these dimensions through discussion and dialogue, which are both important for generative learning. Discussion and dialogue must be properly balanced. Senge likens discussion to the game of table tennis, with players volleying ideas. The purpose of discussion is winning with persuasive argument, so that your ideas prevail especially when the team must make a decision. When a decision is needed, discussion is required.

Generative learning requires dialogue. In dialogue, we explore complex issues as we strive to deepen our understanding. I introduce my students to dialogue when they present their first of four team projects. In a real-time Web conference, I get students to examine their assumptions critically. In the short-term they are frustrated. But, they quickly see that I am helping them deepen their understanding of the subject.

In my classes I have seen many students' dialogue skills mature. Their final project deals with building a marketing communications plan; a key component of which is establishing a communications budget. There are four basic methods for setting such budgets. Student dialogue typically progresses through the strengths and weakness of all four methods. They quickly reject the first three methods and decide to set their communications budget at levels required to meet their objectives. But in doing so, they incorporate the strengths of the first three methods. They develop an understanding of affordability, projected sales, what competition is spending, and what their communications objectives are. Through dialogue the students decide what portion of their sales is going to be invested in marketing communications, and if their desired budget is unaffordable, they then lower their goals.

Dialogue is demanding. All participants—bosses and instructors included—must be willing to suspend belief in their own assumptions even as they communicate their assumptions vigorously. Conflict is inherent in dialogue, which can engender hard feelings. Instructors must be ready to referee overly intense conflicts. Socrates, history's greatest facilitator of dialogue, was considered an annoying gadfly by his distracters and was sentenced to death for corrupting the youth of Athens with his incessant questions. But, unlike Socrates' accusers, we must not see people with different opinions as adversaries. They are simply colleagues with different views that must be examined as part of the learning process.

Hierarchy, and those who jealously guard rank's privileges, may unwittingly block true dialogue. A facilitator who keeps the team on track is needed. A solution for experienced teams is to rotate facilitators. But who is this facilitator? In any classroom, especially with students untutored in the rigors of dialogue, the facilitator's role falls primarily on the instructor. The instructor can nurture the teams' dialogues by posting guidelines that will help engender trust among teammates. These guidelines should remind students to treat one another as worthy and trusted colleagues. This demands generosity and self-reflection; the focus should be on whether I am a good colleague, not whether my teammates are being generous to me. Second, the guidelines must encourage the investigation of all spoken and unspoken assumptions. This requires an open-mind and courage to go wherever the argument leads. And, finally, the guidelines must make students aware that they cannot enter into a fruitful dialogue without doing their preparatory homework.

In my online class, I assign a rotating role of team captain. Captains set the agenda, distribute assignments, and enforce deadlines. The captain must bring conflicting points of view to the fore and achieve consensus. Ideally, the team captain is the facilitator of dialogue. Most students, however, are not ready for this role. So, I usually have several phone conversations with each captain, engaging him or her in dialogue. I probe the team's working assumptions and uncover glaring contradictions. My questions are usually very simple. Here's an example of one that I have repeatedly had to ask: "Why do you think you can raise prices when demand is falling?" Captains typically take these questions back to their teams. In most cases, the teams ponder my questions and the contradictions in their positions, and, in doing so, they start their own dialogue.

Building dialogue in an asynchronous online class poses unique challenges. Socrates' dialogues would have been quite different if he and his co-investigators posted their ideas helter-skelter on a bulletin board in the marketplace. Dialogue happens in real-time; online courses typically do not. You can try to manage dialogue by posting questions on message boards, but these arguments often backtrack and break the logical flow of the arguments. Better results can be obtained using synchronous tools available on e-learn platforms. Chat-rooms can work. Web conferencing systems that support real-time conversations using microphones and speakers, however, are much better. I found that after I engage students in dialogue using a Web conferencing session, students' internal team interaction begins to move from discussion toward dialogue. Team projects, supported with the right technology, can help elearners practice the discipline of dialogue.

Putting It All Together by Playing Socrates, But Not Drinking Hemlock

Online instructors need to exercise a special kind of leadership to foster team learning and the other disciplines. This kind of inspiring leadership is akin to the leadership demanded in a learning organization: the leader must be a designer, steward, and teacher.

  • Teacher as Designer. Good course design is crucial, and yet good designers are under-valued. The "teacher as designer" is barely visible because this work is done before students enter the classroom. With good design, problems are not solved; they are dissolved, as they are less likely to happen. The best designers are invisible. The goal is to fashion a course that places students in the center of the action so that they can move their projects forward. Designing team projects takes time and effort. These projects must present students with challenging problems. The teacher must frame the problem and provide data to solve these cases. If the project is to reflect reality, the data should be incomplete, inconsistent, and redundant. A well-structured project will require students to wade through data to arrive at their own conclusions. Good course design allows students to take ownership of the course. This empowerment of students by the instructor is the hallmark of a great leader.
  • Teacher as Steward. A teacher, like the leader in a learning organization, must also become the steward of the vision of where we have been and where we are going, which can be based on one's own personal vision or "purpose story." This purpose story is both personal and universal. The teacher should expose his or her personal vision and experiences as a practitioner to the class. In doing so, this story can inspire as it relates the course to students' personal vision.
  • Teacher as Teacher. This role is about fostering learning. It is not about telling people how to achieve their vision or imposing solutions. Teaching in the classroom, like leading in a learning organization, helps people develop a deeper understanding, a "systemic understanding" in Senge's words. The best way to inspire students—to strengthen their joy of learning—is not by "telling," but by showing them how to master the curriculum and become an active learner in a community of active learners.

The virtual classroom needs to become a microcosm of the learning organization, not because it needs sustainability, but because it is a training ground for lifelong learners who will be able to fashion the futures they desire. Require students to learn by doing rather than by reading, writing, listening, and studying in solitude, and the virtual classroom will become the learning organization.


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