Facilitating Effective Collaboration in Virtual Student Teams

Group of students on virtual meeting platform raise hands and have discussion icons

Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, instructors have endeavored to identify alternative assessments to engage their students online. Facilitating collaborative projects online is a challenging task and one that many instructors might not be sufficiently prepared for. Virtual team projects can be particularly challenging, as students grapple with issues related to technology, management, communication, and culture (Flammia et al., 2016).

This article highlights the key stages that virtual student teams typically go through, along with one or more practical strategies that instructors can employ to facilitate those stages. Some of these strategies employ the use of e-tivities, which are structured, forum-based activities (Salmon, 2013).

The remainder of this article focuses on the following four stages of virtual teamwork:

Stage 1: Find a team and choose a topic for the project
Stage 2: Define team members’ roles
Stage 3: Decide how to approach the project
Stage 4: Undertake the project

Stage 1: Find a team and choose a topic for the project

I have been facilitating international virtual team projects for over a decade with students and colleagues from different higher education institutions. Some years we divide the class into teams based on their strengths and skillsets; other years we ask students to select their own teams. Unfortunately, sometimes when we have asked students to select their own teams, some students inevitably fail to join a team, requiring interventions on our part.

Strategy: In this first e-tivity, I introduce students to strategies for effective teamwork by linking to an article about Covey’s habits of highly effective people. I then ask students to reflect on how teams form and work together by encouraging them to read an article about Tuckman’s team formation model. I encourage students to think about any times they’ve worked in teams before, the challenges they might have encountered, and how they dealt with them. To help them identify project management and collaboration tools for the project, I provide a link to my website, which lists a variety of useful tools. [Note: In this particular example, the project requires students to design and develop an e-learning course on a topic of their choosing, but the project could be about anything].

Awarding a small amount of points for this e-tivity, and requiring students to complete it by the end of week 2 or 3, ensures students organize themselves quickly.  This e-tivity works very well with postgraduate students but I’ve also tried it with senior level undergraduates with equal success. To achieve marks for this e-tivity, one team member must post the name of every team member and the topic they have collectively chosen by the due date. Click here to view the e-tivity.

Stage 2: Define team members’ roles

Instructors need to decide if they are going to identify leaders for each team or leave it up to the team to decide if they need a leader or not. Good leaders are invaluable in face-to-face (f2f) teams but even more critical in virtual teams, where members are separated by time and space and have to use technology to communicate (Flammia et al., 2016). If the team leader is sufficiently skilled, they may be able to assign roles to their teammates; other times, instructors may have to do it.

Strategy: In this second e-tivity, I introduce students to the kinds of roles that are typical in content development projects and, based on their preferences and skillsets, I ask them to assume one additional role in addition to the role of content developer. Each team member must also identify two sources of content they will use in their projects. [Note: the e-tivity wording can easily be adapted to suit the roles required for other team projects. This article, from the University of Central Florida, refers to other roles and responsibilities that students might need to assume.]

To gain marks for this e-tivity, the team leader must upload the roles of each team member along with their content sources by the due date. Click here to view the e-tivity.

Stage 3: Decide how to approach the project

In the case of virtual teams, students might need extra help to develop their team processes. Kezsbom (2000) talks about how the team’s shared purpose sometimes does not emerge until team members have disagreed and reflected on those disagreements. If team leaders have been assigned (see stage 2), the team leader’s role should be to clarify the project goals and ensure team members stay focused on tasks. Swift trust, which is the term used to describe trust in temporary virtual teams, needs to be created early on—and maintained—to ensure project success (Coppola, Hiltz, & Rotter, 2004; Iacono & Weisband, 1997).

Teams also need to decide which tool(s) they are going to use to collaborate. Teams might decide to use synchronous tools such as videoconferences and live chat, or asynchronous tools such as forums and email, or a combination.  Students also need to bear in mind time zones and technical restrictions, such as bandwidth and access to technology when choosing tools.

Strategy #1: Ideally, teams should have received some instruction on how teams work and how they might deal with the challenges they’ll likely face (see my strategies for stage 1). It can also be helpful to provide students with links to cultural training (e.g. the Peterson Cultural Style Indicator) and guidance on netiquette.

Strategy #2: Instructors can invite students to participate in team-building exercises.  These exercises might require students to post short biographies of themselves online and then reach out to one another, or undertake some fun online activity together. The goal here is simply to encourage team members to express themselves as real people and to get to know one another. Lin et al. (2008) argue that teams need to engage in social, as well as task-orientated communication, to work together and achieve outcomes.

Strategy #3: Instructors can ask students to devise a brief team agreement outlining who will assume each role, how and when the team will communicate, the preferred technologies, and how the project will be managed.  This document can be consulted at a later date if any disagreements arise.

Stage 4: Undertake the project

Regardless of whether you’re asking students to collaborate on a report, undertake an experiment, or design an interface, it is essential that you provide clear guidance on what the student needs to do, where, and when—otherwise, your students will quickly become frustrated.

Strategy: In this e-tivity (which follows on from the earlier e-tivities), I ask students to collaborate in teams to design an interface for an online course, which adheres to best practice design guidelines. Students are free to use any tool to design the interface but I specify certain requirements. For example, I tell them the types of screens I am looking for, the components that must appear (e.g. on-screen text, graphics, menus, and buttons), and that they must include callouts or labels indicating the styles and standards they have applied.

To gain marks for this e-tivity, the team leader must upload the sample designs on behalf of the team by the due date. Click here to view the e-tivity.

Concluding remarks

In this article, I outlined the key phases that student virtual teams typically go through, and how the instructor can facilitate those stages through a combination of structured e-tivities and other strategies. Each of the e-tivities and strategies can be modified to suit the project at hand. By breaking the project into smaller deliverables, students can more easily navigate the various stages of virtual teamwork.

Darina M. Slattery, PhD, is a senior lecturer at the University of Limerick (UL) in Ireland, where she teaches courses on e-learning, instructional design, and learning and collaboration technologies. She is an alumna of the Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning (IELOL) and President of the IEEE Professional Communication Society.


Coppola, N. W., Hiltz, S. R., & Rotter, N. G. (2004). Building trust in virtual teams. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 47(2), 95–104.

Flammia, M., Cleary, Y. and Slattery, D. M. (2016) ‘Virtual Teams in Higher Education: A Handbook for Students and Teachers’, North Carolina: Information Age Publishing.

Iacono, C. S., & Weisband, S. (1997, January). Developing trust in virtual teams. Paper presented at the 13th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Wailea, HI.

Kezsbom, D. S. (2000). Creating teamwork in virtual teams. Cost Engineering, 42(10), 33–36.

Lin, C., Standing, C., & Liu, Y.-C. (2008). A model to develop effective virtual teams. Decision Support Systems, 45(4), 1031–1045

Salmon, G. (2013). ‘E-tivities: The Key to Active Online Learning’ (2nd ed.). London, UK: RoutledgeFalmer.