Virtual teams and social presence


Block 3 of H817 takes the students through the Learning Design Studio – a methodology for collaborative learning design. A major part of this involves students working as a team to design a learning product.

Team working comes with its own challenges and opportunities. In fact, the course blurb clearly states

‘Teamwork comes at a cost – it means you will need to communicate and coordinate your actions with your team mates, you will need to provide them with feedback on their contributions and you will need to respond to their feedback. You will depend on your team for your success and they will depend on you.’

On the other hand, there are a number of benefits:

‘First, working in a team you will be able to engage in an endeavour on a much larger scale than you would on your own. You will enjoy the benefits of collaborative learning – constructing your knowledge through interleaved action and discussion. Finally, you will experience a process that is much closer to ‘real-life’ Learning Design projects, which are most often team efforts.’

My experience in teams has been mixed, but generally positive. I have always learned something (often about myself) and felt a feeling of satisfaction that what I have brought made a difference to the outcome.  Overall I like working with other people; it brings the best out in me and it feels more social. From a learning theory point of view team working enables social and connectivist learning, where learning is about the knowledge of others. For example in my designated group (our project is to design an activity for a local history project using mobile/social learning), I am delighted to learn that one member has direct experience of local history and will be the main source of knowledge of the chosen physical site, while other  members have  technical expertise and media skills.

However, team working practices need to be established upfront and Salas et al (2005) provide a ‘big 5′ essentials of teamwork for consideration:

•    team leadership
•    mutual performance monitoring
•    back-up behaviour
•    adaptability
•    team orientation
These are supported by three coordinating mechanisms:
•    shared mental models
•    mutual trust
•    closed-loop communication.

It’s difficult to argue against any of these. Obviously, team leadership is crucial. In an online space I think I have always been very grateful if someone has taken the lead and willing to support. What is worse is no one taking any responsibility for heading a team, as things just drift and there can be frustration. Similarly, mutual performance monitoring and backing each other up is crucial if the team members are trying to achieve a joint outcome.

However, there is a possible limitation to this framework in that the needs and dynamics of distributed and virtual team may require something else.

This came up in my team’s first online meeting via Skype, where we thought that in this sort of group, perhaps fixed team roles are not a great idea. We might choose to rotate the roles depending on the tasks of the week and people’s availability, which points to other essentials taking priority, such as mutual performance monitoring and adaptability. This approach will also share the load and also allow others’ expertise to come to the fore when required.

Additionally, the difficulties in an online space is that we don’t really know each other well enough, and we make assumptions about where we are coming from (similarities and differences). So we may make assumptions about shared mental models, while mutual trust has to be earned over time. As we have agreed to meet regularly on Skype or similar hopefully we will start developing towards some of these desirable characteristics, rather than assuming or forcing them to exist.

Therefore I think that team work in a virtual and distributed space needs to be treated as an evolving process with additional two factors to work on: communication and social presence.

Underpinning the effectiveness of the ‘big 5’ is the requirement for (lots of) communication. In my experience of group work on this Master’s programme, the most frustrating is when participants disappear or (for example) no one volunteers to take part in a call for a shared activity, and therefore long silences exist in the virtual space (usually the course discussion forums). As no one meets face to face, there is no way of knowing who will participate and who can be counted on and when – unless there is active opt-in. However, there may be very valid reasons for why people ‘disappear’ – there is no real social contract to participate, some participants may be happy learning on their own through sampling and lurking, someone may feel others are doing the job adequately, while concerns about time, confidence in expression and a myriad of other reasons may be present.

Cultivating social presence may help. Social presence, defined as the ability of participants in a community to project themselves, socially and emotionally, as real people through a medium of communication (Garrison and Anderson, 2003) can help in virtual and distributed teams by bridging some of the distance and enabling informal as well as business-like communications within the team. A sense of social presence facilitates team cohesion, which ‘has been shown to have strong reciprocal relationship with team performance’ (Jian & Amschlinger, 2006).

I’ve experienced this myself, where in an earlier module, the group found that Twitter helped establish social presence in a group activity, and tools such as Twitter can help build social presence amongst distributed participants (Dunlap and Lowenthal, 2009), indicating that there is someone around in the team may help as a motivator. It is possible that using a tool such as Google+ Community might build social presence, while being logged into Skype is another option.

For virtual and distributed teams , attaining the ‘big 5’ may be more akin to an aspiration, especially if the team duration is relatively short, but focussing on communication and establishing a social presence for the team, mediated by suitable technologies, may improve the possibilities for effective team working.


Dunlap, J. C., & Lowenthal, P. R. (2009). ‘Tweeting the night away: Using Twitter to enhance social presence’ Journal of Information Systems Education, vol. 20, no. 2., pp.129-135; also available online at

Garrison, D. R., and T. Anderson (2003). E-learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice. New York: Routledge Falmer.

Jian, G., & Amschlinger, J. (2006). Social presence in virtual teams. Available at

Salas, E., Sims, D. and Burke, C. (2005) ‘Is there a “Big Five” in teamwork?’, Small Group Research, vol. 36, no. 5, pp. 555–99. Available at

Image courtesy of Sweet Crisis /