Dewey Goes Online: Virtual Teaming on Campus

min read

Key Takeaways

  • John Dewey's ideas on progressive education have become newly relevant with the advent of online learning.
  • Collaborative online learning is an important example of Dewey's intellectual legacy.
  • Virtual teams move instructors off center stage while increasing their students' — and their own — engagement.
  • Most campuses already have all the software required to support virtual teamwork.

Nearly a century before the Internet brought online learning to college and university life, American philosopher and progressive education champion John Dewey recognized that traditional classrooms often stand in the way of creative learning. Troubled by passive students in regimented rows, Dewey worried that students who accepted the unquestioned authority of teachers not only undermined engaged learning but also thwarted democratic practice in the social and political life of the nation. Instead, Dewey called for a "spirit of free communication, of interchange of ideas,"1 encouraging "active, expressive" learning.2

Taking up ideas suggested by Dewey and others, progressive educators in the 1920s proposed that students learn best by performing real-life activities in collaboration with others. Experiential learning — learning by doing — coupled with problem solving and critical thinking, they claimed, is the key to dynamic knowledge acquisition. Rather than respect for authority, they called for diversity, believing that students must be recognized for their individual talent, interests, and cultural identity.

Forming Groups in Face-to-Face and Online Learning

Face-to-face teaching, the most common style of instruction and, consequently, the practice that seems most natural to people, is often valorized as the foundation against which all other methods are measured.3 Many people take for granted that the classroom is the normal place for learning, yet little evidence supports that assumption. The basic idea is that face-to-face students form a cohesive group, participating in discussion, listening to lectures, and building intellectual and social relationships with teachers and peers inside and outside class. But as Anthony Picciano pointed out, this is not always the case. Classroom students often feel alienated, drawing away from others and isolating themselves.4 While face-to-face interaction is often thought of as giving us perfect knowledge of student behavior, in fact, physical presence can often obscure crucial hidden social and psychological relations.

Today, the unprecedented demands of online learning — specifically, finding ways to engage "invisible" students — have reclaimed Dewey's ideas. Suddenly, the lessons of progressive education have become relevant, and Dewey seems prescient. In one of the principal online learning research texts, Starr Roxanne Hiltz and her colleagues claim that collaborative online learning "is one of the most important implementations" of Dewey's legacy.5

Most universities have already introduced most of the technical infrastructure required to support virtual collaboration on campus, across the country, and around the globe. At most schools, virtual teams can be launched seamlessly without introducing high-end video conferencing or wall-to-wall visualization or engaging added technical personnel. Virtual teams can be set in motion on campus by exploiting currently installed commercial or freely available open-source software. As Anu Sivunen and Maarit Valo wrote:

"Without the numerous tools and technologies now available to communicate and collaborate, virtual teams might never have become so widely successful. Because team members are often situated in distant geographical locations and since they rarely engage face-to-face, they must rely on robust communication technologies to accomplish their tasks."6

Tools for Communication

Even with more sophisticated tools available, e-mail is the most common application employed by virtual teams. When real-time responses are not needed, e-mail allows team members to send well-crafted messages and gives recipients time to respond thoughtfully. Archived, messages are easily retrieved for review. In virtual teams, as in every other online environment, however, the common complaint is that e-mail contributes to information overload, causing stress and taking time away from other critical tasks.

Information-sharing among team members often relies on text-based "threaded" discussions, an essential virtual teaming application housed on school-wide learning management systems or as part of groupware. In addition to forums, most learning management products offer other common features such as document distribution, grade books, live chat, and online testing. Collaboration software suites may also include calendars, application sharing, time-tracking, surveys, and content and workflow management, all designed to make it easy to share information online among team members.

Forums are the principal channel through which team members communicate. Often used as bulletin boards to store messages and documents, forums open a space where students can post questions and instructors can broadcast answers to the whole team rather than responding to each student individually. Using forums prudently, instructors can dispense useful, widely applicable information to all.

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.

Blogs have emerged as a common web application that can replace discussion forums with many of the same options and extend them by combining text, images, and hyperlinks. With blogs, team members can categorize entries and restrict visitors' postings to designated topics only. While blogging is fairly common, other instructors have turned to wikis as collaborative websites, permitting members to add and edit content. In some wiki applications, tracking allows team members to view the sequence of text changes and revert to earlier versions as needed.

With online learning emerging as a highly competitive marketplace, a wide variety of meeting software is now available. Virtual team members can hold meetings online, with faculty and students delivering real-time audio slide presentations. More formal webinars typically provide limited interaction, but most offer chat and "hand raising" features aimed at stimulating student engagement. Some instructors encourage students to deliver their own webinars, giving students the chance to report on team projects in real time. Most webinars can be archived, permitting those unable to attend the option of retrieving missed presentations at any time. Archiving is also an essential feature used to review content later.7

Podcasts allow team members to retrieve presentations on demand. With merely a microphone and recording software, students and instructors can easily create podcasts and upload them for easy access, including on mobile devices. Instructors frequently encourage students to produce podcasts to share their work with the team. Mobile phones have replaced landline instruments for many students. With their SMS capability, cell phones have transformed into a text-based asynchronous tool thanks to texting. Using Skype and other voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) applications, computers can link to high-speed telephone connections, permitting team members to call each other without charge. Teleconferencing, on the other hand, is not frequently scheduled by virtual teams. More recently, social networking and social media sites — such as Twitter, Friend Feed, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Delicious — give team members alternative and engaging ways of keeping in touch.

Facilitating Virtual Teams

Merely assigning students to groups and encouraging them to work together will not yield desirable results — students do not automatically transform into involved and thoughtful participants when they go online. Poorly prepared peer-to-peer learning can exacerbate status differences and generate dysfunctional interactions among students.8 At worst, virtual teaming can result in "the blind leading the blind" or "pooling ignorance."9 Aided by university IT infrastructure, faculty must orchestrate online learning, building "intellectual scaffolding" and prompting students with projects, discussion topics, and questions that encourage them to think deeply, creatively, and interactively.10 Ironically, moving from physical to online space often requires faculty to become far more engaged than in the classroom. Instructors become facilitators, propelling students to engage in discourse through discussion and argument to generate and link ideas.

At their best, online faculty achieve what is known as "teaching presence," a constellation of actions that give students a vivid sense that virtual instructors are fully engaged.11 Teaching presence emerges from online faculty-student interaction and feedback that exploits e-mail, chat, discussion boards, webinars, and other applications that defy the limits of space and time. Unlike the time constraints imposed by the physical classroom, online instructors and students enter a borderless space, open to the possibility of continuous dialogue.12 In asynchronous communication, the give and take of online discussion is conducted at a much slower pace, giving students and teachers time to reflect and more room for analysis, critique, and problem-solving.13

Virtual teaming opens online space, allowing students to work together in pursuit of a shared goal or to produce a joint intellectual product. Student-to-student interaction in small groups permits the acquisition of knowledge and skill through collaborative help. 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.14

We can trace the history of education over the past decade by mapping teachers' roles as they migrate from the center of the educational stage as principal actors in traditional classrooms to the wings in online learning where they assume a supporting role. In virtual teams they play an entirely new and radical part, setting the stage for students to act on their own. Faculty now sit in the audience as observers and critics, with students on the platform as performers, occupying an engaged space where learning takes place collaboratively with their peers.

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."15 Active learning, he claimed, emerges from students forming a "miniature community, an embryonic society"16 — uncannily like virtual teams.


This article is a version of the opening chapter in Virtual Teamwork, edited by Robert Ubell, to be published by John Wiley & Sons in May 2010.

  1. John Dewey, The School and Society(Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1915), p. 11.
  2. Ibid., p. 20.
  3. Thomas L. Russell, The No Significant Difference Phenomenon, 5th ed. (Montgomery, AL: IDECC, 2001).
  4. Anthony G. Picciano, "Beyond Student Perceptions," JALN, vol. 6, no. 1 (July 2002), pp. 21–39.
  5. Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Ricki Goldman, Eds., Learning Online Together: Research on Asynchronous Learning Networks (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrrence Erlbaum, 2005).
  6. Anu Sivunen and Maarit Valo, "Communication Technologies," in Virtual Teamwork, Robert Ubell, Ed. (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, May 2010).
  7. Kit Brown-Hoekstra, Brenda Huettner, and Phylise Banner, "Choosing Collaborative Tools," in Virtual Teamwork, Robert Ubell, Ed. (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, May 2010).
  8. Phyllis C. Blumenfeld, Ronald W. Marx, Elliot Soloway, and Joseph Krajcik, "Learning with Peers: From Small Group Cooperation to Collaborative Communities," Educational Researcher, vol. 25 (November 1996), pp. 37–39.
  9. Keith J. Topping, "Trends in Peer Learning," Educational Psychology, vol. 25, no. 6 (December 2005), pp. 631–645.
  10. Alice Christudason, "Peer Learning," Successful Learning, no. 37 (2003).
  11. Raquel Benbunan-Fich, Starr Roxanne Hiltz, and Linda Harasim, "The Online Interaction Learning Model: An Integrated Theoretical Framework for Learning Networks," in Learning Together Online: Research on Asynchronous Learning Networks, Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Ricki Goldman, Eds. (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005) pp. 28-29.
  12. Mark Kassop, "Ten Ways Online Education Matches, or Surpasses, Face-to-Face Learning," The Technology Source Archives, May/June 2003, pp. 1–7.
  13. Anthony Picciano, "Online Learning," Journal of Thought, vol. 41, no. 1 (Spring 2006), pp. 75–94.
  14. Karen Swan, "Assessment and Collaboration in Online Learning," JALN, vol. 10, no. 1 (February 2006), pp. 45–62.
  15. Dewey, The School and Society, p. 34.
  16. Ibid., p. 13.