Virtual Classroom Creates Tangible Teamwork Results
Student Teams Learn To Succeed Together in Online SOM Course
Jan. 28, 2011
A failed weather balloon launch, an international cookbook and a virtual art project all have roots in Dr. Tracey Rockett’s online course, Organizations and Organizing (OB 6326). While this three-credit-hour class is all about learning to work together, along the way students participate in what may be their most unusual educational assignments ever.
“This course is all about groups and teams,” explained Rockett, a senior lecturer in Organizations, Strategy and International Management. “It’s for MBA students, and many of them are getting a concentration in organizational behavior. This course allows them to practice a group strategy and learn how to analyze what is happening as a group.”
Because Organizations and Organizing is an online course, most interaction is virtual. Students meet online and form teams so that they can complete a group project. From there, they meet to decide what the project will be, how it will be executed and what each member’s role will be. In the five years since Rockett created the class, she has seen groups undertake everything from volunteer projects – such as a movie night at the Ronald McDonald House – to publishing a restaurant review guide and even doing an online art project.
“In addition to what they learn about working in groups, it lets them build a sense of camaraderie,” Rockett said. “They have fun and get to know each other. It truly expands their horizons.”
Adding to the unusual nature of the class is its loose structure: There are no traditional exams, students blog and write papers on their group experiences, and they also participate in eight weeks of group discussions. They keep journals that touch on such aspects of the group process as information sharing, conflict and resolution, rhythm and pacing, and leadership. If there are conflicts, the group members have to resolve them together. Students who are determined to be underperforming can be “fired” from a group, and then must be accepted into a new one. (In most cases, according to Rockett, an errant student is able to resolve conflicts with other members and is allowed back on the team.)
Getting There Is Half the Fun
Those who have taken Organizations and Organizing agree that it adds an unusual dimension to learning. Andrea Cravens was attracted to the class because of her interest in what she calls “the abstract aspect of organizations.” She discovered an experience that exceeded her expectations.
After forming a four-person team, Cravens, Christine Besset, Jennifer Maguire and Priscilla Reynolds decided to create an international cookbook. A native of Brazil, Cravens said that some of the challenges included getting images of the finished dish, making sure every continent was represented and translating measurements to U.S. metrics. They also needed to make sure that all the ingredients could be purchased in the United States. Finally, they created an accompanying blog, Tastes of the World, to showcase the various recipes.
Although the project revolved around a cookbook, it had exactly the effect that Tracey Rockett envisioned when she created the class: It developed a sense of community and exposed all team members to the intricacies of working together — even virtually — for a single purpose.
“It gave me more confidence on managing projects and exposing my ideas,” Cravens said. “It also gave me the opportunity to practice negotiation and influencing strategies as we worked very democratically throughout the project.”
Finding Success in Spite of Failure
Not all projects have the result that team members hope for. In one of the more interesting projects to emerge from the course, a team chose to create a weather balloon. Sanju Catalano, Veena Naik, Jon Nutting and Andy Conover worked to create a balloon that would allow them to take pictures and video of the Earth. A GPS-enabled phone was included to allow them to retrieve everything once the balloon made it back to ground.
“A group from MIT did it a few years ago,” Conover said. Despite three launch attempts, the weather balloon failed to take flight. “The balloons are easily ripped, and it’s also difficult to gauge how much helium to use to lift the payload.”
However, he added, the group is going to try again in the summer — “just for fun.”
Above: Dr. Tracey Rockett's course is Organizations, Strategy and International Management.
Below: A food blog was the visible result of one student group's work. The real achievement was something less tangible: The team members learned valuable lessons about the intricacies of working together.