Dissimilar Learning

Air CombatThe Air Force enacted dissimilar air combat training shortly after the Vietnam war. Prior to this, pilots learned combat maneuvers against each other in various flight training courses. But at some point they have to practice and adapt these techniques against enemy aircraft and techniques that they are not familiar with. So there are advanced training programs that are known as dissimilar training where pilots test their skills against unknown variables. I thought about this earlier this year when I was asked to redesign our graduate course on  Team Development for online students.

The original design of the on-ground course shows future managers and organizational development specialists how to use team building activities to improve team performance. These are fairly easy learning activities to conduct in live sessions. I felt that putting these activities online would be a major challenge especially in an asynchronous course that is only partially supplemented by synchronous activities.

One limitation I had with the design of the classroom version of the course was that while team development activities can be valuable in team development, I felt that actually experiencing the long term effect of these activities on team performance was missing. In a way we were practicing team development activities without fully appreciating the dynamic challenges of working in teams and how effective these activities really are in real-world situations. So I started contemplating the idea of engaging students in a dissimilar team development situation and since this was to be online it could be done within a case study requiring virtual teamwork.

The text we use is Group Dynamics for Teams by Daniel Levi. The appendix is an excellent guide for managing student team projects. I had never used it in the classroom because the curriculum didn’t call for a course length project. I decided to use it as a road map for a virtual project experience that would last the entire term. I then wrote a case study based on a real-world problem in a business setting that I hoped students had very little experience with as way of adding stress to the project. The hope was that this would surface team dynamics and challenges we face in the real world which would allow us to try Levi’s recommendations in a meaningful way.

This approach allowed me to more effectively use Kolb’s experiential learning theory. Students engaged in a fairly complex case study but then we would periodically step outside the case study to examine what they were experiencing in team development. Levi’s guide suggests a number of activities that I believe were effective in helping students adjust their behaviors to work more effectively as a team. These suggestions are fundamental in project management – nothing exciting or dynamic about them but they can be a catalyst for examining and reflecting on their performance.

I treated the first session as a pilot so the evaluations must be taken as potential indications only since this was not a controlled experiment and the population is very small. The first class of six individuals were divided into two separate teams with each team working on the same case study. Only half the students submitted the online course evaluation.

In terms of similar measures with the on-ground course (course administration, time on task, critical thinking, facilitator, etc.) these students rated the course as good or better which is in-line with the on-ground experience. As an instructional designer I worry about lessening the experience when moving a course online. I believe we succeeded in keeping the course at a comparable level.

There were challenges in terms of the systems we used but also positive comments on the experience of using collaborative technologies (we used Google Apps for Education and Google+). The indication is we can never do enough to prepare faculty and students with using these technologies. For some this can be a pretty steep learning curve when in their first online course.

There were interesting comments about team development (what the course is all about). Levi states that social loafing can be an issue in self-managed teams. One team chose a leader and the other team chose to self-manage. As I attempted to use the systems to evaluate participation of team members I detected what I thought was social loafing on part of some and final evaluation comments indicated frustration among some students who felt they were carrying the load for their team mates. That I could see that this was occurring in a virtual and learning environment was helpful but grading actual performance was nearly impossible. As teams, both groups succeeded, but as individuals some did not have a positive experience and felt there wasn’t enough discrimination in the approach to recognize their efforts.