SENSEMAKING TO CREATE HIGH-
PERFORMING VIRTUAL TEAMS IN
AN ONLINE ENVIRONMENT
A private nonprofit university decided to engage in online offering
of course work in its M.B.A. program. Before going 100 percent online
with a course, the administration and faculty team decided to start with
hybrid courses: courses that were 50 percent on-ground and 50 percent
online. After successful delivery of these types of courses, the university
would move to the next level of offering: 100 percent online courses. It
wanted to create a collaborative and engaging learning community and
make the experience of the individual learner the center of the course.
Currently all core M.B.A. courses and electives can be offered in a hybrid
fashion, and by the end of 2007, all courses will be online offered through
the online program.
The university licensed Web-based courseware for building and
delivering of course work. The heart of the system was the discussion board
area where discussion forums were set up for threaded asynchronous
dialogues for student and faculty engagement in learning. This feature
allows contributions and a continuous dialogue cycle of learning and action
to build an effective learning community.
Common forums include:
Internet Cafe—Social Dialogues. Please use this forum
for any non-class-related announcements, issues,
important events (job changes and promotions), upcoming
trips, holiday plans, etc.
Course Questions and Clarifications. Please use
this forum to post questions or dialogues for this
course. Is there something that needs more
clarification? This forum will help me [the
professor] to be more responsive to your needs.
Conferences and Journal Submissions, plus
Organization for Practitioner Scholars. Please
use this forum to share opportunities for upcoming
conferences and journal submissions, plus
organizations pertaining to practitioner scholars in
the fields of OD, Change Management, Strategic
Change Leadership, and Organization Theory,
Learning and Practice.
Resource Building. In this forum, please post
suggested areas of research and/or articles, books,
websites, etc. related to the fields of Organization
Development and Transformation, Change
Management, Strategic Change, and Leadership.
DUE DEC 4th: Term Project. In this forum,
please post your final assignment and presentations
Refer to pages 15–19 of your syllabus for details..
DUE DEC 8th: POS Article Review. On or
before DEC 8th, please post your article review in
this forum. Details on page 19 of your syllabus.
Written Review is worth 15 points.
Appreciative Inquiry Resources. AI Related
Material. Please feel free to post any material that
you find on Appreciative Inquiry.
Discussion forums will continue to be built throughout our
It is through the online dialogues in the discussion board area that
conversations and relationships emerge vital to the learning process. The
faculty member takes on the role of sense manager to engage students in
the context and process of learning. His or her role is to manage the
appropriate level of conversations, language, and relationships. What adds a
lot of rich description to this online virtual team, that is, the class, is that the
students share their work in progress and their final work. There is an
opportunity to provide feedback on assignments and resources to assist the
students by the faculty member and classmates. It is a very collaborative
The system provided these other features as well:
Announcements: Post weekly announcements to guide and
support the students’ learning objectives.
Staff Information: Post a biography on the faculty member,
office hours, and how to contact the instructor.
Course Information: Post the course syllabus and other useful
resources to help students meet course objectives successfully.
Course Documents: Post weekly folders of course documents
such as agendas, PowerPoint presentation material (with
voiceover slides), handouts, and articles.
Assignments: Post detailed guidelines to help guide students on
key assignment and faculty expectations. This can also include
illustrations of assignments done in prior terms so the student
knows what the instructor is looking for.
Communication Tools: This is a series of tools to enhance
synchronous (sending an e-mail to students or creating group
page area for students to share documents when working on
group projects) and asynchronous communications (such as
online lecture halls and virtual online office hours with chat
External Links: This tool provides learning links to support the
The Five C’s
The five C’s for effective sense making in building a virtual learning
community are as follows.
The faculty member is responsible to provide the purpose of the
course in his or her syllabus and in weekly announcements. Here is an
Active participation in reading, viewing and discussions is
imperative for maximum learning to occur. E-mail
lecturettes, assignments, and online sessions & discussions
will supplement reading materials. You are responsible for
everything that is presented and all assigned readings. To
earn full points here, there needs to be a pattern or
responsible involvement in the course and in your learning
experience. Participation Points cannot be earned if you are
not participating in the threaded discussions in the Bb
[Blackboard] “Discussion Forum”. Required postings are in
the Communication Section of Blackboard under the
appropriate “Discussion Area”. This is where your
dialogues should take place.
In general, prepared and constructive participation is
expected. Effective contributions to each class session and
lecturettes tend to help grades, not hurt them. Evaluating
the quality of in-class and online participation is necessarily
subjective, but it is also based on the direct substantive
contribution of the participation and on the indirect
indicators of quality participation. You should be prepared
to discuss (analyze, summarize, comment upon, answer,
question, and or react to, etc.) any portion or all of the
reading material assigned. Participation is an integral part
of this course.
Self-discipline is vital for successful completion of an online
learning course. Threaded discussions are fun and insightful, but students
must participate to achieve these benefits. Therefore, faculty members need
to be clear on their expectations as to what is meant by quality and
regularity of Blackboard discussions. Having a Discussion Forum labeled
“Course Clarifications and Questions” helps to support it.
Faculty members need to present to the learning community how to
connect and coordinate in regard to course deliverables and online postings.
It is recommended that students plan on logging into the virtual learning
community at least three to four times a week—for example:
Online Learning Sessions: You will provide a major point
or series of points from selected readings and/or the
lecturette that interests you, reinforces, or refutes an idea of
yours as it pertains to any perspective in our course. This
point could relate to a new learning experience or seem
important to you because of your work or life experiences.
The postings occur via Communication Center under
Discussion Area for ALL students and instructors to review.
These paragraphs should serve as discussion points among
To assist you with this participation, you will receive
discussion questions or situations from the instructor within
the assigned Bb forum for the week. These discussions are
to encourage individual students or group of students and
instructor participation. Note: The purpose is to get all of
you involved in communicating via Bb Discussion Area
and sharing knowledge (your articles, experiences, and
sources) to build an effective learning community. Grading
in the online participation and in class participation is based
on the quality, timeliness, and level of your involvement.
An open and flexible learning environment is created when both
faculty member and students are resourceful and connective with each other
in contributing resources and meaningful and intelligent dialogue. The
instructor needs to provide online transparent communication to the entire
community as to their progress, send individual feedback to help each
student learn and contribute and be an active member of the learning
community, and acknowledge and thank those engaged for their
Co-Creation and Commitment
Faculty and students have learned that course objectives and
deliverables outlined in the syllabus are best achieved through a
collaborative effort. Faculty need to support students’ interest and learning
by providing foundational and personal knowledge, research work, insights,
and contacts from a career and research in the field of study. In concert,
students need to display initiative, communicate their learning objectives,
and continue in the graduate program from a spirit of self-directed learning
and study. Those who work together have a rewarding journey.
Communication and timely feedback are critical to a high-
performing virtual learning team. When and if a deadline cannot be met or
perhaps needs to be extended must be communicated.
Jackie Stavros is professor at Lawrence Technological University
and editor for Taos Institute Publications. She coauthored Dynamic
Relationships: Unleashing the Power of Appreciative Inquiry in Daily
Living and Appreciative Inquiry Handbook. She recently completed a book
“SOAR: A New Approach to Strategic Planning” chapter for the Berrett-
Koehler's The Change Handbook by Holman, Devane, and Cady. Her
clients include BAE Systems, ERIM International, Jefferson Wells,
Tendercare, General Motors of Mexico, Girl Scouts USA,
PriceWaterhouseCoopers' Advisory University, and many educational
institutions and tier 1 and tier 2 automotive suppliers. She earned a
doctorate in management at Case Western Reserve University and an
M.B.A. in international business from Michigan State University.