Virtual Teams in Computing Education

Mary Z. Last

Grand Valley State University
One Campus Drive
207 Mackinac Hall
Allendale, Mi  49441

Doctoral Affiliation: Kingston University, UK

Expected Date of Graduation: May 2000


University graduates need to be better prepared to work in globally distributed organizations. Part of that preparation involves teaching students to work effectively in teams to solve problems. Students also must be able to work with individuals located at distant sites where there is no or very little face-to-face interaction.

The goal of this research is to develop a model and a set of evaluation tools that deal with virtual teams. The findings of the study are intended to help educators integrate team projects in distance learning environments. These environments, in many cases, simulate globally distributed organizations. While the research takes place within the context of higher education, the model will apply to any environment that employs virtual teams.


The SCANS report, issued in 1992 by the US Department of Labor described five specific competencies required of the work force in the 21st century. The ability to work in teams, as well as the ability to work well with people of culturally diverse backgrounds, were cited as specific abilities in the interpersonal skills area [2].

Colleges and universities have responded to this report and others by integrating collaborative problem-solving throughout the curriculum [3]. There have been efforts to make team projects model ìreal worldî experiences [1] and to form partnerships with industry to give students needed group work experience [8].

The teaching/learning paradigms discussed above focus on teams in a traditional classroom setting. The teams are composed of students who work in face-to-face groups to accomplish a particular task or project. In many instances, the students already know the other members of the group.

Distance learning, that is, learning that takes place between remote sites has traditionally been a solitary type of learning. The use of computer-mediated communication in distance learning has changed that type of learning. Students can now work collaboratively and interact with each other and with their teacher on a regular basis. Students develop interpersonal and communication skills that were unavailable when working in isolation.

Virtual team learning [5] that takes place within the distance learning environment goes further in educating students for work in the 21st century. Virtual teams are teams that do not meet face-to-face and use computer-mediated communication. Students can be attending the same university from different geographical locations or be involved in multi-university projects [4,5,7,9]. Students work with students from different cultures to achieve a common goal or accomplish a specific task.

Using teams in a distance learning environment for undergraduates presents some unique challenges for educators. Current group-development models are based on teams that meet face-to-face. Will these same models work in a different environment?

To successfully incorporate team work in distance learning environments, educators need guidelines on assigning students to teams; creating team building exercises; using appropriate group-development models, monitoring team progress, creating appropriate educational tasks, and designing assessment mechanisms.

Research Question

Will group-development models that were developed and tested with face-to-face groups require modification when applied to virtual teams, that is, teams where there is no face-to-face interaction?


This research has two components. In the first component, educators in higher education are being surveyed to determine current practices in assigning teams in distance learning environments.

The objective is to determine which techniques, for example, Myer-Briggs indicators, learning styles questionnaires, random selection, are being used to place students in teams. Other information to ascertain include, for example, what type (if any) team building exercises are used, how team progress is monitored, how conflicts are resolved, how peer evaluations are handled, and whether students are provided with background information on working in teams. A copy of the survey form can be found at

The objective of stage 2 is to develop and evaluate a model and a set of tools for analyzing the performance of virtual teams. As part of this development, the effectiveness of different evaluation tools, such as interviews, surveys, observations, journals, peer evaluation instruments, electronic correspondence, and computer conferencing transcripts will be investigated. How effective is each tool in monitoring group processes in virtual environments? The survey of existing practices may identify other tools that should be considered in evaluation.

The group development model that is being used is the TIP (Time, Interaction, Performance) Model [6].

Current Status

As part of this research, I am studying the performance of virtual teams composed of students from Grand Valley State University and Uppsala University, Sweden, a collaboration known as Runestone. The primary aim of the Runestone project is to introduce real international experience into undergraduate Computer Science education in a way that has value for all participants.

The pilot project for Runestone was conducted from January  through March 1998 and involved 4 US students and 4 Swedish students. Students communicated via e-mail, Internet Relay Chat, a video-conference, an audio conference, and web pages.  Observations from this pilot project include the following:

Data from this pilot study is being analyzed for emergent patterns such as decision strands, student roles, faculty-student relationships, and cultural factors that affect outcomes. [4]

The Runestone project started again in January 1999 with all the students from GVSU and Uppsala that are enrolled in a CS project course. There are seven teams composed of 6 students each (3 US students and 3 Swedish students.) Data collection includes a background questionnaire, project logs, journals, IRC logs, and archives of all e-mail correspondence. The questionnaire, project log, and journal questions are accessible from the class web page, Each team has a team leader chosen by the group. It is too early to make any observations about the current project course. Some preliminary results should be available at the time of the SIGCSE 99 conference.

Open Issues

A major issue is data analysis. Much of the data is textual and content rich. Which content analysis software package would be suitable? How do you ensure the objectivity of the researcher in analyzing the data?


  1. Arras, R. J. and Motter, L. The Senior Seminar in Computer Science. Proceedings of the SIGCSE 90 Technical Symposium, February 1990. Also in SIGCSE Bulletin 22, 1, pp. 29-36, February 1990.
  2. Cohen, E. and Boyd, B. Teaching Techniques That Work: College Teaching of Information Systems. 1996. Available from
  3. Daigle, R. J. and Doran, M. V. Integrating Collaborative Problem Solving Throughout the Curriculum. Proceedings of the SIGCSE 96 Technical Symposium, February 1996. Also in SIGCSE Bulletin 28, 1, pp. 237-241, March 1996.
  4. Daniels, Mats et al. RUNESTONE, an International Student Collaboration Project. In Proceedings of IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference. Tempe, AZ, November 1998.
  5. Knoll, Kathleen and Jarvenpaa, Sirkka. Learning to Work in Distributed Global Teams. August 3, 1995. Available from
  6. McGrath, J.E. Time, interaction, and performance (TIP): A theory of groups. Small Group Research 22, 2 pp.147-174.
  7. Spargo, Lois and Barbara Kelsey. How Two Universities Crossed the Border. January 12, 1999. Available from
  8. Williams, Kathleen. Educating the Next Generation of Information Specialists: Industry and University Collaborative Learning Pilot Project. Proceedings of the SIGCSE 97 Technical Symposium, February 1997. Also in SIGCSE Bulletin 29, 1, pp. 350-354, March 1997.
  9. Yoo, Youngjin. An Investigation of Group Development Process in "Virtual" Project Team Environments. This research in progress report was available from, November 19, 1996.