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2.2 Forming teams for collaborative learning online

2.2.1 Challenges and benefits of virtual teamwork

Research suggests that students may experience stress and face challenges with various kinds of group work (e.g. [2], [3], [4], [5]). Especially, online learning settings may expose students to severe stress as online learning environments seldom offer similarly effective interactive resources to bond, build trust and overcome potential conflicts in teamwork as in face-to-face learning environments. At the same time, many work-life organizations employ global virtual teams, and offering students opportunities for virtual teamwork provides them excellent experiential learning [1].

2.2.2 Groups versus teams

Groups and teams differ in their purpose, composition and level of engagement. Group work is suitable for any learning cooperation while teams are needed for genuinely collaborative learning. Teams are typically smaller in size and formed for a longer-term purpose, such as a learning project with a work-life partner. Teams require real integration and coordination to perform given tasks towards an agreed upon goal.

Online team dynamics are mostly hidden for the educator and students often suffer from lack of trust and lower work commitment if online interaction and support for team building processes are insufficient.

High-performing online teams typically follow a similar development as in physical contexts. For example, the stages of forming, storming, norming, performing, adjourning [6] are typical at recurring team evolution stages. This chapter focuses on the forming stage as a collaborative and well-functioning teamwork process depends on successful team formation.

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Read more on groups vs. teams, and team development stages: >>Team-building for online collaborative learning

2.2.3 Conditions and purposes for online teamwork

Identifying the most purposeful approach for forming teams and facilitating online teamwork depends on several factors, one of them being the online learning setting. Various teaching and learning conditions often overlap and many similar team formation approaches may apply. Table 1 outlines some most common online learning conditions and purposes for team formation.

Table 1: Common online learning conditions and purposes for team formation

Online learning conditions

Considerations for purposeful teaming


Mode of implementation: Hybrid or fully online

Fully online or hybrid implementations will have an impact on team formation possibilities. In hybrid implementations face-to-face team formation activities for the offline group will be supplemented by online teaming activities for the online group.

Mode of online presence:
Asynchronous or synchronous

Asynchronous or synchronous learning will set different criteria for team formation and online teamwork. In synchronous learning students are present online at the same time and effective teaming is often more flexible. In synchronous learning teacher-led, student-driven, or topic-driven team formation approaches apply.

In asynchronous learning teaming depends on various students’ progression and on individuals’ own activity; high importance is needed on clear written guidance, including timing of group assignments. Teacher-led team formation often most effective.

Level of human interaction:
Automated or interactive implementations

Automated implementations are mostly asynchronous and with little real-time human interaction. Teacher-led team formation applies. Due to a typically large no-show number of online enrolments, teams are optimally formed after a first assignment, confirming a students’ activity.

Large MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) are an example of automated course and require special planning for group/teamwork.

Study units involving same-time interaction between the educator and students enable more flexibility in team formation. Teacher-led, student-led or topic-driven team formation approaches apply.

Size of the online learning group:

Small vs. large number of students

A study unit with a limited number of participating students offer more flexibility for team formation. However, with good planning, teacher-led, student-led or topic-driven team formation can be applied in large learning groups, too.

Set-up for the enrolments and progress:
Open vs. closed enrolments

In automated and timely unframed study units, students do not progress in a similar tact. Teamwork is hardly purposeful. Group work, e.g. in a form of discussion threads may apply.

Timely scope of the learning assignment:

One-time task vs. a long-term project

Collaborative learning activities taking place just once during an online session or long-term learning projects such as projects in cooperation with a work life partner require different levels of team commitment and bonding. Teacher-led, student-led or topic-driven team formation approaches apply.

Type of learning goal:
Deep competence or metacognitive knowledge vs. surface skills or factual knowledge

The deeper the learning or higher the educational objective (e.g. Bloom’s taxonomy, [7]), the more warranted is an opportunity for collaborative and peer learning in teams. Teacher-led, student-led or topic-driven team formation approaches apply.
For short-term assignments, quick ad-hoc group formation (e.g. break-out rooms with random division) is most sensible.

Type of learners:
Diverse learners and benefiting of diverse perspectives

Diversity in teams is likely to increase diversity in perspectives and deeper learning. Heterogeneity of students can be an additional criterion for team formation, whether the activity is teacher-led or student-driven. Diversity factors are many, e.g. previous experience or knowledge with the topic, gender, age, native language, cultural background, maturity level (bachelor’s or master’s students; age), study status (degree student vs. open path students, full-time students vs. part-time students), and so on.

Besides the above online learning conditions, other social and motivational factors, technical resources or institutional policies and practices can affect which team formation mode is most purposeful or possible.

2.2.4 Team formation practices

Different team formation practices can affect team performance or a student’s motivation and willingness to commit to collaborative learning. Thus, the educator needs to carefully consider what is the most purposeful way for forming online teams.

In teacher-led teaming the educator controls how, when and what kind of teams are formed. Teacher-led team design and assigning has many advantages such as time management or ensuring that all students are included. Similarly, teacher-led team formation best ensures diversity in teams [8]. Technology-assisted teaming can be considered as a form of teacher-led team formation where the educator considers randomity in team formation as one benefit.

Here are a few examples of teacher-led online teaming formation:

Student-led, self-selected teams
have many benefits, such as student well-being [9]. Being able to team up with previously familiar peers may be a big comfort for introvert students. Being friends or knowing peers’ working styles can also reduce the time needed for bonding and trust-building which can be crucial factors in fast-paced online learning.

Here are a few examples of student-led online team formation:

Topic-driven teaming
is a form of student-led teams where teams are created around a topic. Allowing students to focus on a topic area they are most interested in, or working on a team-based project with an external work-life partner they see most beneficial in considering future employment opportunities may improve commitment towards teamwork. In addition, a student is usually also able to find teammates among familiar peers. This is also the case in the following process description for a topic-driven team formation.