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Strengthening Deeper Learning Through Virtual Teams in e-Learning: A Synthesis of Determinants and Best Practices

Martine Durier-Copp (Dalhousie University, Canada)
Joyline Makani (Dalhousie University, Canada)
Session Information
October 15, 2015 - 9:15am
Learning Effectiveness
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Research Study
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Theory/Conceptual Framework
Institutional Level: 
Multiple Levels
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Northern Hemisphere A2
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Concurrent Session 5

This Knowledge Synthesis project analyses the body of literature on elearning and virtual teams, extracting a set of best practices for effective online learning.

Extended Abstract


E-learning has transformed traditional ways of learning in higher education. Globally, e-learning continues to gain popularity as its potential contributions to economic and social development and innovation are recognized. In the U.S., for example, in 2012, over 6.7 million students were taking at least one online course, an increase of 570,000 students over the number reported in the previous year (Allen & Seaman, 2013). The increased access and flexibility offered by e-learning has also been recognized as a fundamental vehicle for fostering a lifelong learning society (Canadian Council on Learning, 2009).

A recent Canadian report highlighted the importance of e-learning to social and economic development, and called for a coherent framework to shape e-learning?s development, noting the need for concerted efforts to fill gaps in research and harness the potential of technology to meet the needs of learners (Canadian Council on Learning, 2009). A stronger understanding of determinants of effective online learning is therefore essential for the future success of education and training worldwide.
Today, educators are striving to conceptualize new models of teaching and learning in online settings, where digital information tools and social networks are redefining the learning experience (Edwards & Bone, 2012). E-learning offers the potential ?to enable student centred learning through realisation of constructivist teaching principles? (Edwards & Bone, 2012). However, this potential has not been realized, as most current e-learning practices merely replicate or transfer traditional existing teaching methods into online environments (Salmon, 2005), and most have not fully exploited the interactive and social components of peer learning. As Hunt, Smith & Chen (2010) observed, academicians need to challenge students to engage, and one way to accomplish this is by using active collaborative teaching scenarios.

There is growing practical evidence that one of the key factors for e-learning success is an understanding of the social component of learning, i.e., the importance of person-to-person and team interactions within the e-learning framework. Social aspects of peer learning can contribute to student motivation and engagement, enhance social connections, and increase student access to feedback about their learning (Morrison, 2006). In other words, group or team work, according to precepts of adult education, promotes ?deeper? learning through its propensity to encourage creativity, higher level critical thinking, innovation, and collaboration. As team work is often utilized in the professional context, this type of work also provides the skills that students require in today?s workplace.

Virtual teams are one such example of a form of workplace team with potential implications for e-learning. Virtual teams are groups of people committed to a common purpose or goal who are separated geographically, who use a variety of communication technologies that allow them to transcend the limits of time and distance, in order to work together (Ale Ebrahim, Ahmed & Taha, 2009; Green & Roberts, 2010; Martins, Gilson & Maynard, 2004). Aside from their ability to allow highly skilled but geographically dispersed individuals to work together, past studies have claimed other benefits of virtual teams, for example, increased team cohesion and a greater sense of responsibility among team members (Ale Ebrahim et al., 2009), increased participation among members and reduction in the effects of status inequalities (Martins et al., 2004), and provision of more opportunity for an international perspective (Green & Roberts, 2010). There is a growing body of knowledge on how to develop effective virtual teams in the professional context (Fairzuniah & Chan, 2014; Parke, Campbell, & Bartol, 2014; Berry, 2011). As well, there is some discussion in academic circles of possible relationships between e-learning and virtual teams (Erez, Lisak, Harush, Glikson, Nouri, & Shokef, 2013; Shea, Sherer, Quilling & Blewett, 2011). However, there is a dearth of research that examines the role of virtual teams in e-learning; virtual teams have not been extensively empirically studied in the academic sphere, and little is known about their effectiveness as a learning mechanism.

Based on a working hypothesis that the body of literature on virtual teams can inform and augment best practices for successful e-learning, this Knowledge Synthesis project examines the literature on both e-learning and virtual teams. The key research question is whether virtual teams used in the e-learning space are potentially effective in producing better student outcomes and enhanced learning. It is useful therefore to consider what lessons can be learned from the literature on virtual teams which can be applied and used within e-learning environments. In order to draw these conclusions, there is a need for an in-depth review of findings in the literature on virtual teams concerning the impacts and results from virtual teamwork, which can be useful or transferred to general e-learning.
The researchers will have completed a systematic search of the literature, academic and grey, for virtual teams and for e-learning across multi-disciplinary fields in higher education, including business, medicine, education, and technology, among Through an iterative approach, the research team will have identified patterns, themes, and categories across large volumes of text-based data used to extract a set of best practices from each field. According to an analysis and interpretive synthesis of these findings, a comprehensive framework of key determinants and critical success factors for effective online learning and collaboration will have been developed.

This project was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the major federal funding agency for humanities and social sciences research in Canada. The research team will present the final report of our findings to this agency in September 2015, and to the On-line Conference shortly thereafter.


Ale Ebrahim, N., Ahmed, S., and Taha, Z. (2009). Virtual teams: A literature review. Australian Journal of Basic and Applied Sciences, 3(3), 2653-2669.

Allen, I. E. and Seaman, J. (2013). Changing course: Ten years of tracking online education in the United States. (Sloan Online Survey). Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group. Retrieved from

Berry, G.R. (2011). Enhancing effectiveness on virtual teams. Journal of Business Communication, 48(2), 186-206.

Canadian Council on Learning. (2009). State of e-Learning in Canada. Ottawa: Canadian Council on Learning. Retrieved from

Edwards, S. and Bone, J. (2012). Integrating peer assisted learning and eLearning: Using innovative pedagogies to support learning and teaching in higher education settings. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 37(5), 1.

Erez, M., Lisak, A., Harush, R., Glikson, E., Nouri, R., and Shokef, E. (2013). Going global: Developing management students? cultural intelligence and global identity in culturally diverse virtual teams. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 12(3), 330-355.

Faizuniah, P., and Chan, J. M. (2014). The mediating effect of knowledge sharing on the relationship between trust and virtual team effectiveness. Journal of Knowledge Management, 18(1), 92-106.

Green, D. D. and Roberts, G. E. (2010). Personnel implications of public sector virtual organizations. Public Personnel Management, 39(1), 47-57.

Hunt, C. S., Smith, L. B., and Chen, M. (2010). Incorporating collaborative technologies into university curricula: Lessons learned. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 22(1), 24-37.

Martins, L. L., Gilson, L. L., and Maynard, M. T. (2004). Virtual teams: What do we know and where do we go from here? Journal of Management, 30(6), 805-835.

Morrison, K. (2006). Peer assisted study sessions. Supporting Quality Learning and Student Engagement in Economics & Business. Retrieved from

Parke, M. R., Campbell, E. M., and Bartol, K. M. (2014). Setting the stage for virtual team development: Designing teams to foster knowledge sharing. Paper presented at the Academy of Management Proceedings, 2014(1) 17244.

Salmon, G. (2005). Flying not flapping: A strategic framework for e-learning and pedagogical innovation in higher education institutions. Research in Learning Technology, 13(3).

Shea, T. P., Sherer, P. D., Quilling, R. D., and Blewett, C. N. (2011). Managing global virtual teams across classrooms, students and faculty. Journal of Teaching in International Business, 22(4), 300-313.

Lead Presenter

Martine Durier-Copp is the Director of the Centre for Advanced Management Education (CFAME) at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a department which delivers online and blended graduate degrees to hundreds of working professionals across Canada. Her recent projects include “Critical success factors for virtual teams in the public and private sectors,” and “Learning analytics: Understanding online student interaction networks.”