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Virtual Teams in Higher Education: A Handbook for Students and Teachers

reviewed by Catherine Hansman - August 03, 2017

coverTitle: Virtual Teams in Higher Education: A Handbook for Students and Teachers
Author(s): Madelyn Flammia, Yvonne Cleary & Darina M. Slattery
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1681232626, Pages: 218, Year: 2016
Search for book at Amazon.com

As a professor and an adult educator, I strive to employ a variety of activities and teaching strategies to engage students in both face-to-face and online classes that I teach, and I frequently assign students to work in teams. However, my online students and I have at times struggled with carrying out virtual team projects. In their book Virtual Teams in Higher Education: A Handbook for Students and Teachers, Madelyn Flammia, Yvonne Cleary, and Darina M. Slattery offer “guidance for students participating in virtual team projects because virtual organizational structures are being used with increasing frequency by multinational corporations, businesses, and nonprofit organizations” (p. 3). Indeed, as I point out to my students who may be resistant to engage in teamwork, in the workplace people rarely work in only face-to-face relationships; instead, teams of employees from around the globe collaborate virtually to complete projects.


Flammia, Cleary, and Slattery’s text is designed to assist students to become comfortable working with others in virtual team projects, although in later chapters recommendations are given to assist faculty members in designing and directing virtual team projects for their students. They developed their knowledge of virtual teams through their ten-year collaboration with students and faculty members at the University of Limerick in Ireland and the University of Central Florida in the United States. These virtual interactions resulted in ample research opportunities for the authors, and were used to examine how students faced the challenges of working on teams virtually, how and what they learned from these collaborations, and what they might do differently when working on virtual teams in the future. The book contains three parts, which include nine chapters, appendices, a case study of virtual team collaboration, references, and resources.


Part One, “Introduction to Virtual Teamwork,” is composed of two chapters, which introduce concepts of virtual teams. Flammia, Cleary, and Slattery define virtual teams as “work groups composed of members who rely on computer-mediated communication to accomplish their goals…across national, organization, and disciplinary boundaries” (p. 4). Members of these teams are border crossers, spanning national, cultural, organizational, technical, space, and language boundaries. However, the diversity of these teams, while a strength, can also present management and cultural challenges to communication among members, which may result in misunderstandings and conflicts. Chapter Two details the importance of leadership in virtual team projects, and students who lead these projects must not only be skilled in managing tasks and motivating team members, but must also have advanced abilities to handle and manage digital files that might be used by all members of the team. Desired skills and traits for virtual group members in many ways are similar to those required of non-virtual teams and include communication and technical skills, awareness of intercultural communication issues, diligence, and the ability to trust and work well with others. However, as this section emphasizes, technology, equipment, and software may complicate collaboration among team members.   


Part Two, “Addressing the Challenges of Virtual Teamwork,” contains four chapters that focus on communication, technology, management and cultural challenges, and each chapter explores one of these four primary challenges prevalent in virtual teams as well as strategies to address them. In Chapter Three, the authors describe methods, models, and examples of establishing trust early in projects, sustaining effective communication for the duration of the team, and establishing clear guidelines for sharing and communicating knowledge among virtual team members. Through a brief discussion of communication theory and models (i.e., Maletzke, 1963) and Social Identity Theory (i.e., Hartley, 1999), interpersonal skills emerge as one of the key components of successful virtual teams. Developing clear communication among team members is essential, as miscommunication can lead to wasted time and efforts on everyone’s part.  Other potential challenges include technology, and the authors discuss ways to assist students in using technology in efficient and effective ways to enhance teamwork. Chapter Four emphasizes the importance of selecting the appropriate technology for virtual teams, emphasizing that “poor technology choices can have implications for budgets and, in extreme cases, a project can fail” (p. 45). However, rather than make recommendations for specific software programs, the authors discuss various categories of tools that might assist virtual teams in their work. Categories discussed include synchronous and asynchronous communication and collaboration tools, such as videoconferencing tools, email, discussion forums, and file sharing.


The remaining two chapters in Part Two examine the essential challenges for virtual teams: management, including handling conflicts, and cultural diversity. Chapter Five focuses on management challenges inherent in virtual teams, such as “geographic distance, cultural diversity, logistical challenges, and the reliance on computer-mediated communication” (p. 58). The authors advise that virtual team leaders can assist the team to develop a unique team identity and culture by fostering an atmosphere of trust and respect through mentoring and motivating the team members, creating a common mission, and rewarding members for their contributions. More importantly, team leaders should help the team develop a “global identity,” which assists members in perceiving themselves as belonging to a global community, as well as communicating and sharing information with members of other cultures rather than one particular culture. Diversity among virtual team members may then be seen as an “opportunity rather than an obstacle” (p. 73). In Chapter Six, the authors develop these ideas further, but first define culture as “shared values, beliefs, and standards of behaviors of a particular group of people…culture is learned…expressed as behavior…and is dynamic and adaptive” (p. 86). The authors further define culture as “the shared values, beliefs, and routine patterns of behavior of employees in an organization” (p. 86). Theories and models of intercultural communication, social identity, knowledge sharing, shared mental models, and conflict resolution are discussed and critiqued in relation to developing global virtual teams.


Part Three, Guidelines for Structuring Successful Virtual Team Projects, is composed of three chapters, including guidelines to assist faculty members and students to design and carry out effective virtual team projects. The first two chapters in this section provide practical advice on best practices for virtual team members and for faculty managing them. Many of the concepts presented in these chapters are developed from the models and theories discussed in earlier chapters of the text. Wenger’s (1998) concepts of Communities of Practice are explored in relationship to virtual teams in Chapter Nine, providing notions of how these concepts can be used to develop virtual teams while also providing a critique of how these concepts may be oppressive or not attentive to individual team member’s needs. Global Citizenship is discussed as a result of changed perceptions of space and time due to the development of technology that allows instantaneous communication and interactions, allowing students to recognize their place in the global community. The case study that closes the book explores a collaborative team project in which students from the United States and Ireland worked virtually together to produce technical documentation, illustrating many of the concepts examined earlier. The resource list contains many references to articles and books, but perhaps the list of websites, collaborative software and files sharing tools, and team building games will be most useful to students and faculty members.


The growth and proliferation of online classes and learning opportunities in higher education have created both challenges and opportunities. Flammia, Cleary, and Slattery have written a timely text that has a broader application beyond higher education, and may assist those who plan and carry out organizational development and virtual team building within organizations. Although the authors contend that the book is written to help students navigate and succeed in virtual team experiences, faculty members, human resource development professionals, trainers, and adult educators may also benefit from the theoretical and practical ideas presented.



Hartley, P. (1999).  Interpersonal communication (2nd ed.). London, UK: Routledge.


Maletzke, G. (1988). Massenkommunikationstheorien [Mass communication theories]. Tubingen, Germany: Niemeyer.


Wenger, E. T. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 03, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22118, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 5:34:09 PM

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About the Author
  • Catherine Hansman
    Cleveland State University
    E-mail Author
    CATHERINE A. HANSMAN, Ph.D., is professor of Adult Learning and Development at Cleveland State University. She is co-editor of the Adult Education Quarterly, and her interests in mentoring, adult learners in higher education, and feminist inquiry are reflected in the many articles and book chapters she has published in peer-reviewed journals. She recently (2016) co-authored the book Educational Leadership and Organizational Management: Linking Theories to Practice published by Information Age Publishing.
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