An Introduction to Virtual Team Teaching with Sharon Coyle
Virtual team teaching, or VTT, consists of having students from different colleges, often in different regions, collaborate on assignments or projects in a synchronous manner using online communication tools, in class. Invaluable in courses where the student is invited to learn about other cultures and languages, VTT has the potential to enhance almost any course.
In 2006, Sharon Coyle, Humanities teacher at Cégep de Sept-îles, began an experiment with VTT in collaboration with Vanier College. After more than a decade of experimentation with the concept, she published Virtual Team Teaching in 2017 in collaboration with the CCDMD (Collegial Centre for Educational Materials Development). In the book, she details her experience and shares her expertise of VTT.
In the following interview, Sharon provides an introduction to VTT and she shares some of her unique knowledge on the subject.
What is virtual team teaching and how is it different from distance learning?
Sharon: VTT is the idea of having students from different colleges work together in a synchronous manner over the internet through online communication tools such as Skype or Facetime. Two teachers work together to plan the shared activities and 2 classes of students interact with each other individually, in small groups, and as the larger double class. It is a pedagogical practice that enhances two existing courses by giving students an opportunity to work together on in-class learning activities.
While people automatically think of online education and distance learning when they picture VTT, the 2 practices actually have very little in common except that both use online communication tools. Distance learning takes place, at least in part, with the student alone at home, interacting with course material on their own, whereas VTT takes place in class and the students are strongly encouraged to interact with one another. Distance learning is a course format; VTT enhances an existing course.
What are the benefits of VTT?
Sharon: This is a chapter in the book so it is hard to condense it into a couple sentences!
For the students, the gains, beyond the obvious course objectives, are threefold:
- Experience with online communication tools
- Supported collaborative learning opportunities
- Interaction with other students from contrasting demographics that might help develop their open-mindedness
Teachers benefit from working closely with a distant colleague, sharing ideas and learning from alternative practices. In a profession where teachers are often standing alone in their roles, VTT provides possibilities for debriefing with someone who was there with you and the growth that comes from shared experience.
Can virtual team teaching be integrated in any course?
Sharon: VTT can work for any discipline, but some just seem to be an easier fit, for example Humanities. The second Humanities compulsory general education course, Worldviews, is an obvious VTT candidate because the course objective requires students to explore the way different groups look at the world. Connecting with students in other places and comparing worldviews through shared activities is a great way to help students meet course requirements. Discussing with students from other countries is also a great way to learn a new language; language learning courses have been using virtual exchanges for decades.
Multidisciplinary VTT teams can also provide interesting learning opportunities: sociology and literature, or maybe science and visual art!
From your experience, what are some factors required for the successful integration of virtual team teaching in a classroom?
Sharon: Accessibility of technology, good bandwidth, and an ability to improvise and even be open to failure. It really helps if students have access to individual computers, or at least one device per pair or group. If you are going to use video conferencing, make sure your classroom can support it.
Also, VTT is a multifactorial endeavor with many aspects beyond the teacher’s control, so you have to be willing to let a little chaos in. VTT teachers have lived through power outages, cut cables that connect the North Shore to the rest of Quebec, and Olympic Hockey matches drawing all the bandwidth (not to mention attention). Have a Plan B ready! Even when the technology goes well sometimes the content just doesn’t fly, or the activity flops. This can happen in any normal classroom situation, but with VTT it is amplified by 2 classes and a built up expectation for something special.
Lastly, VTT asks students to use skills that will be developed over the VTT sessions; expect that learning to take time, and understand that things going wrong are part of the learning. Be watchful for small victories to celebrate. The shared laughter, the student who narrates a personal story across the distance, the individual who takes on extra responsibility and acts as a spokesperson for their group. These are signs that the VTT is providing the opportunities it is designed for.
What’s next for you and for VTT?
Sharon: In the upcoming winter term my Humanities Worldviews class is teamed up with a French Second Language class from the University of Arizona for a virtual exchange called The Borderlands Project. We will explore liminal spaces: political, cultural, linguistic, imaginary; all kinds of dividing lines that we experience daily.
The researchers are excited about bringing some cool technology to the table, 360 degree cameras and an interactive online map where students will share digital artifacts that will be linked to their geographical location. So the students from Tucson can click on Sept-Îles and see the work from their VTT sessions. They will also be able to see what the students in the Kazakhstan-Russia VTT pairing are doing when they click on their links!
I think that is the future of VTT, teachers creating opportunities for students to explore their world in a social, collaborative, supported practice.