Active learning is used as an umbrella concept for teaching approaches that actively engage students in the learning process. Active learning may also be referred to as interactive instruction, learning by doing, and experiential learning (Gajjala, Rybas, & Yahui, 2009; Smart & Csapo, 2007). Students take an active role in generating knowledge rather than simply receiving or absorbing facts from professors and instructors. Drawing from such philosophers as Locke and Dewey, the idea of active learning posits that the planned course experience allows rich opportunities for learning that include understanding, retention of knowledge, and reflection on the experience (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). Active learning emphasizes that students consciously and deliberately build from their current level of knowledge to achieve new knowledge and skills. Creating situations for active learning serves as an alternative to teaching by lecturing whereby a professor tells students about the knowledge they need to obtain. Research on active learning used in various disciplines argues that students go far and beyond memorizing to reach out to meaningful learning experiences though reflecting upon ideas and using ideas in problem solving (Michael, 2006).
In teaching practice, group work and active learning are synonymous. Lisa Gueldenzoph (2007) and Kathy Brzovic and Irene Matz (2009) vouched for intensive teamwork in their courses. These authors see group work as involving students in more than listening to the information delivered by the instructor, and our experience suggests further differences between group work and teaming. For those involved in the Virtual Teams project, the transformation of a group of students into a team requires time, explicit discussion of and participation in team-building strategies, and adequate freedom in assignment goals and form to allow adaptation to specific team's strengths and weaknesses. Modeled after workplace writing environments where colleagues bring with them diverse backgrounds and skills, we included members from each class in every team so students could combine their areas of expertise. To allow opportunities of alliances in cases of disagreement or dissent, we included at least two members of each class in every group. To facilitate dynamic team work, we developed specific tasks that mimicked stages of group development: The tasks were planned as social, exploratory, and production phases. The use of these strategies provided opportunities for the students to pool their resources and skills to achieve the project objectives and to begin to see themselves as team members rather than individuals grouped together.