University of Phoenix: Pros and Cons of Learning Teams

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University of Phoenix is the United States’ largest private university. It has over 400,000 students split between a robust online learning program and 400 brick and mortar campuses and learning centers. Through GeekMom, I have been offered the opportunity to take an online class (of my choosing) with UOPX and write about my experience. This post is part of that ongoing series.

Each class at University of Phoenix has a “team learning” component–in fact, the work that I completed with my team in Marketing 421 was worth 30% of my grade. UOPX believes that this team learning “grows collaborative skills” and provides students with a “built in support system,” although Katherine Mangu-Ward’s article “Why is everyone flaming the University of Phoenix” at reason.com posits that learning teams are primarily a cost-saving measure:

Phoenix’s instructors describe themselves as “delivering” course material, since most of the classes are centrally crafted and standardized across teachers. Half of the class sessions are spent in “learning teams,” where students work together without an instructor present. This makes Phoenix cheaper to run, since the school only pays an instructor for half of the course hours.

University of Phoenix has rebutted this point on its website:

The argument that clock hours (the Carnegie Unit System) is a measurement of quality is outmoded and inaccurate. Instead of relying on such subjective judgments of academic effectiveness, we measure whether students are meeting the outcomes established for their courses and program. We use the data to inform our academic goals and to continuously improve the curriculum and instruction.

The school goes on to note its small class sizes (between 10 and 20 students, each). If bottom-line cost really was the only driving force behind the use of “learning teams,” one is left to wonder: why does UOPX keep class size so modest?

As with most arguments, I think both sides have some valid points.

At heart, I’m a constructivist–I believe that people learn best by experiencing new ideas and then reflecting on their experiences through a variety of modalities–hearing, writing, reading, seeing, doing, acting, dancing, drawing, building, etc. UOPX is right: collaboration is absolutely an important tool in this reflective process. When we bounce new ideas off of our peers, we’re able to reality test, analyze, elaborate upon, and reinforce them while also attaching them to previously-held knowledge. Additionally, it makes sense to acknowledge collaborative opportunities as an important aspect of workforce preparation–and it is even reasonable to assume that, as UOPX asserts, learning teams can:

  • Allow students to broaden and deepen the understanding of concepts explored in the classroom.
  • Serve as laboratories through which students develop into more effective leaders and members of workplace teams.
  • Serve as vehicles for reflection, by which adult students make sense of and apply new knowledge.
  • Provide a sense of community and support that is invaluable in helping working students cope with the challenge of balancing school with other life demands.

However, it may be taking a generous leap of faith to believe that these objectives can be optimally achieved without intentional, ongoing, scaffolded support from the instructor. Our instructor did provide us with a team charter to read and sign at the beginning of our project (a form of this charter is used in every class). It asked for our names, emails, and phone numbers, asserted that we should work with each other’s strengths and backgrounds in order to divide up responsibilities, and laid some guidelines for open communication and fair contribution. What it did not do was provide the team with a venue for becoming comfortable with each other so that we could actually develop an understanding of each other. Yes, the charter suggested that the team check-in with each other five times during each week but  it didn’t elaborate on what type of exchange should take place during those check-ins or give the team short term goals to work toward so that camaraderie developed.

University of Phoenix proudly proclaims that the majority of its students are “non-traditional,” but in the case of learning teams, does not necessarily acknowledge that “non-traditional” is synonymous with “over-booked.” This was certainly the case with my team members: not one member of my team was “just” going to school. Each person had a family (including children or grandchildren) as well as a full-time job. Without explicit requirements to do otherwise, our team communicated as little as possible in order to get our job done–not out of laziness but simply because we all lived with so many constraints upon our time.

As my class progressed, I couldn’t help but think: five weeks is not a great deal of time to get to know a team under the easiest of circumstances. Meanwhile, the learning teams in my class were all working together (in the midst of our four textbook chapters a week, our online class discussions, our two additional research papers, our jobs, and our families) to create 6,5oo-word, research-based marketing plans for original concepts. If my team had implemented a calendar of bi-weekly video chats using a program like Skype or Google+ Hangouts, we would have gotten to know each other much better and also been able to discuss the assigned texts in relation to our marketing plan assignment–all of which would have helped clarify our roles and responsibilities for the project.

Moving forward, I hope that Phoenix incorporates group video chat into their classes for just this reason.

Next week: Accreditation and the question of non-traditional students.

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6 thoughts on “University of Phoenix: Pros and Cons of Learning Teams

  1. Did you feel any sort of residual societal pressure not to be the one in the group who was working hardest? Also, how much could one especially lazy or just not good student have brought down the entire group? (Not saying you had such a student, I’m just asking.)

    1. Scott, what I felt (personally?) was a power vacuum in the face of a giant assignment. One of my team members had an injury and didn’t tell the rest of the team until 5 pm on the day the first installment was due that he hadn’t done his part and needed someone else to do it, instead. I stepped up and did his piece, assuming that he would go above and beyond the call of duty to make it up to the group after he got better. Never happened. That definitely made me gun-shy about taking on anything more than I had to for the rest of the project.

      I googled around after the fact and found some people writing about how to tailor the team charters. Some teams took the time to get to know each other (Briggs/Myers results, hobbies, passions, etc.) and also put up consequences at the beginning of the project for anyone not participating in every installment (you don’t participate, your name doesn’t go on the paper). That made me wonder how many other people had a team mate bail out on them.

      By the way, my team knew that I was a writer and that I was going to be writing about my class experiences for GeekMom.

  2. I recently (as of December 2010) completed my degree through the same sort of online learning institution. Though University of Phoenix is the largest, there have been many ‘local’ varieties of this same type of school around and I graduated from one such institution.

    I have extremely strong feelings about the use (or over-use in my opinion) of ‘team learning.’ In my experience there were many similarities to what you are sharing here. We were all very busy all of the time. I never once had a team member that wasn’t working and I can only recall one time I had a team member that didn’t have an extended family relying on their time.

    What I didn’t see mentioned was that our team members were often in completely different time zones on top of that. I, on more than one occasion, had team members going to school while in the military so they would be logging on from Afghanistan or Iraq or Germany. Any idea how hard it is to schedule discussions when you’re Eastern Standard, another member is Pacific and the other member is in Iraq? It was impossible, we found.

    I also felt they just pushed the team learning too much. Probably, as you noted, because it helped them cut costs among other things. I had a Statistics course where 1/3 of the grade rested on team work assignments. Really? In Statistics?

    I also wound up in one fateful group where one of the people bailed during the middle of a very important assignment without bothering to tell us. Given the sort of assignment it was, the division of labor came down to different phases and this person was supposed to finish a key portion of it by the week before I was pulling the parts together for a final review to turn in. I ended up pulling 3 all-nighters to do their part and had to miss a day of work.

    I think it boils down to weighing the conveniences you get with online learning (and there are many) against the ever-present requirement to work in teams that may prove very difficult to coordinate. In the end I survived it and am happy to report I graduated with honors, a B.S., a subsequent B.S. in a concentration, and most of my sanity in tact. The hair, however, is quite a bit more silver than it used to be.

    1. Samantha, The time-zone challenge is something I’ve heard before. University of Phoenix promotes its military-friendliness as a selling point, and as a former military wife, I am glad that it exists as an option for active military. But, yes, someone is always going to be talking in the middle of the night when you’ve got a team that lives in Iraq, the eastern seaboard, the midwest and the west coast. I’m not sure what the answer is? But if there is no real communication happening between team members…if that’s not possible, then, personally, I think less emphasis should be put on the team learning component of the classes.

      1. Andrea, I couldn’t agree more. I always made use of the course and professor evaluations at the end of my classes and every time I made a point to mention that they should either lessen the amount of team work or specify ‘preferred time zones’ for the different sessions offered each trimester.

        I was a part time attendee and was doing this off and on since 2002 and they hadn’t yet taken my advice when I left with my degree in hand at the end of 2010. I’m doubting they ever will.

  3. Hello Everyone,

    My team mates and I are conducting a survey as part of our class project on students’ experiences being on learning teams. Please take a moment to fill out our survey. Your participation is very much appreciated. Thanks. Here’s the link to the survey: http://www.surveybuilder.com/s/JibJlr0UIAA

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