Collaborative learning refers to a circumstance in which more than one individual attempt to learn something together. Different from individual learning, persons involved in collaborative learning utilize each other’s skills and resources. More particularly, this form of leaning is based on the notion that knowledge can be created in a population where people interact actively by sharing experiences. In other words, collaborative learning is the environment and methodologies in which learners are involved in a common mission with each of them accountable and depends on others. In this regard, this paper discusses collaborative learning in virtual or distributed teams.
Enhancement of communications devices has motivated many companies to assign tasks to groups of employees, which are distributed instead of co-located. According to studies, these virtual teams allow organizations to capitalize on the specific expertise and skills of employees without incurring significant relocation or travel costs. As such, virtual teams have become an extremely important research area and managerial focus. Nevertheless, attaining coordinated activity in group works is more challenging for physically distributed groups. When members of a group are located far from each other, the likelihood of face-to-face collaboration becomes rare. Consequently, team members become reliant on mediated interactions for collaboration, and are prone to experience substantial deficits in the information they have concerning the daily activities of their colleagues. Despite the existence of many new forms of communications supporting virtual teams, simple access to media of communication is inadequate to encourage intense collaborative activity, which co-located teams frequently have.
Key Aspects of Collaborative Virtual Teams
According to researchers, virtual teams share information and resources in various forms such as designs, documents and pictures of documents. Additional to the basic capability of transmitting digital files to each other, members of virtual teams have a common place that is accessible by every member of the team. This common place stores digital representations of the team artifacts, and it supports the retrieval of such information.
Some effective virtual teams have real-time interaction. According to studies, real-time interaction is necessary for offering instant feedback and encouraging back and forth interactions during intense discussion period, especially time pressure period. In addition, many studies have shown that in conflicting or ambiguous situations, a rich media with real-time capabilities might possibly avert misunderstanding. Besides the fundamental accessibility to synchronous media, like video conferencing, effective virtual teams have the required resources to enhance the effectiveness of team use.
According to researchers, distributed teams require assistance in enabling informal and spontaneous real-time interaction. Due to the need of scheduling the group meeting in advance, the opportunities for informal and spontaneous real-time interactions are limited in virtual teams. Spontaneous experiences are almost imaginary with worldwide-distributed virtual teams. This is because of the barriers of time zones and distance. The significance of spontaneous and unplanned interaction for improving the performance of the team, has been well documented. Besides enabling conversations, which simulate ideas associated with learning, casual experiences can be conduits for host hosting task coordination activities like scheduling, planning and task assignment.
Many virtual teams maintain awareness of the daily activities related to the project. This aspect arises because members of virtual teams have little chances of physically observing what other members are doing. Different from teams working in the same office or classroom, virtual teams frequently go for a very long time during which they lack information concerning the activities of their members. Consequently, each team member is forced to make explicit efforts to ask for information from colleagues, and inform others of his or her progress. Most importantly, these extra transactions of information increase the costs of coordination, in terms of effort and time as well as the ability of cognitive overload.
Another aspect is that virtual teams often experience problems in overcoming heterogeneous and incompatible technological infrastructures. Virtual team members might deploy computers running on different application software, network infrastructures as well as operating system. In some cases, network infrastructures might vary widely leading to resulting in more potential to some members than others.
Advantages of Virtual environments
According to various studies, virtual environments save on costs. This is the biggest benefit of virtual teams experienced by organizations. Organizations using virtual teams can do away with the significant expenses associated with office spaces, real estates, executives travel and utilities bills such as electricity, water and gas. Researchers have pointed out that many companies outsource a lot of their operations to the low-cost regions. As such, the costs of production also decrease with the decreased operational costs and employees’ wages in these regions.
Distributed teams enable organizations to search for talent beyond their mother country. It brings together specialists and experts from the entire world to contribute towards a project. The greater innovation and increased sharing og knowledge occurs when employees share their understanding of local and global markets, and best practices of business. In other words, virtual teams are important in leveraging global talents.
Virtual teams increase both profitability and productivity. Virtual team members seem to have higher attention on the task. As a common practice, distributed teams support flat organizational structure. This is because members in such teams do not have to address unnecessary bureaucracy that slows down the process of decision-making. This improves the productivity that, in turn, increases the profitability.
Disadvantages of Virtual Environment
The cost of technology poses a serious disadvantage to the use of virtual teams. According to studies, the effective functioning of a distributed team is motivated by the successful deployment of communication technologies like emails, instant messaging and video conferencing. No single technological tool provides the complete support to virtual teams. These technologies are inter-reliant. The cost linked to the installation and maintenance of these technological tools is higher.
The second drawback of virtual collaborative teams is associated with conflicts and lack of collaboration and trust. The differences in culture between team members of virtual teams results in various conflicts. For instance, an American might straightforwardly write an email to describe a bad event, a south Asian might perceive this as impolite. This might result in mistrusts, conflicts and difficulties in collaboration that is vital in ensuring the success of the task.
The third disadvantage arising from the use of virtual teams is social isolation. Virtual team members are negatively affected by the lack of physical interactions. According to researchers, most of the interactions in virtual environment are task oriented. In the present society, where jobs and education are seen as a significant social force, social isolation frequently occurs when there is no physical interaction. Virtual teams allow organizations to capitalize of the specific expertise and skills of employees without incurring significant relocation or travel costs.
Collaborative learning refers to a circumstance in which more than one persons attempt to learn something together. Enhancement of communications devices have promoted many companies to assign tasks to groups of employees, which are distributed instead of co-located. Virtual teams share information and resources in various forms such as designs, documents and pictures of documents. Another aspect is that virtual teams often experience problems in overcoming heterogeneous and incompatible technological infrastructures. The biggest benefit of virtual teams experienced by organizations is cost-savings. Most of the interactions in virtual environment are task oriented. In the present society, where jobs and education are seen as a significant social force, social isolation frequently occurs when there is no physical interaction.
Duarte, D & Snyder, N, Mastering Virtual Teams: Strategies, Tools, and Techniques That Succeed, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 2011.
Ebrahim, N, Ahmed, S & Taha, Z, ‘Virtual teams: a literature review’, AustralianJournal of Basic and Applied Sciences, vol 3, no. 3, pp. 2653-2669, 2009.
Roberts, T., Online Collaborative Learning: Theory and Practice, Idea Group Inc (IGI), New York, 2004.
D Duarte & Snyder, N, Mastering Virtual Teams: Strategies, Tools, and Techniques That Succeed, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 2011, p. 13
 N Ebrahim, Ahmed, S & Taha, Z, ‘Virtual teams: a literature review’, AustralianJournal of Basic and Applied Sciences, vol 3, no. 3, 2009, pp. 2653-2669.
T Roberts. Online Collaborative Learning: Theory and Practice. New York: Idea Group Inc (IGI), 2004, p. 23
 D Deborah, and Nancy, S, p. 23
 T Roberts, p. 34
 N Ebrahim, Shams, A, & Zahari, T, p. 45
 T Roberts, p. 34.
 N Ebrahim, Shams, A, & Zahari, T, p. 45