Excerpt From NYU-Poly's Ubell's 'Virtual Teamwork' in EDUCAUSE Quarterly

Robert N Ubell, Polytechnic Institute of NYU’s Vice President for Enterprise Learning, writes that today’s virtual teams are “uncannily” like the “miniature communit[ies]…embryonic societ[ies]” that emerged from American philosopher John Dewey’s ideal classroom “where experiences and ideas are exchanged and subjected to criticism, where misconceptions are corrected, and new lines of thought and inquiry are set up.”

Ubell makes his case in the article “Dewey Goes Online: Virtual Teaming on Campus,” in the December issue of EDUCAUSE Quarterly, a publication from EDUCAUSE, “a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology.” The article is a version of the opening chapter to Ubell’s forthcoming book Virtual Teamwork, which John Wiley & Sons is set to publish May 2010.

Below are highlights from the article, available at EDUCAUSE.edu in full.

Perhaps the most creative aspect of discussion forums is their unexpected support for peer-to-peer communication, a consequence of online learning that follows Dewey’s principles of engagement as a key element in quality learning. In forums, team members interact with one another in ways that are very limited in conventional classrooms. They can engage in round-the-clock sharing, argument, and extended discussion — practices rarely open to students on campus.

For virtual teams to succeed, instructors must encourage students to practice collaborative skills — giving and receiving help, sharing and explaining content, and offering feedback but also interrogation, critique, challenge, argument, and conflict. With the teacher largely out of sight, whether online or on campus, student team members assume positions rarely taken before — as leader, facilitator, reporter, observer, or participant.

Teams disrupt the linear narrative of conventional instruction by introducing overlapping discourse, flowing from multiple sources in discontinuous, mostly asynchronous, peer-to-peer discussion and argument. In the spirit of Dewey, who encouraged learning by doing, the task of teams is to work together to create knowledge. For Dewey, the ideal classroom is a “social clearing-house, where experiences and ideas are exchanged and subjected to criticism, where misconceptions are corrected, and new lines of thought and inquiry are set up.” Active learning, he claimed, emerges from students forming a “miniature community, an embryonic society” — uncannily like virtual teams.