Leading Your Online Learning Team to Success

This post was originally written for the NovoEd blog here.

Team success is often dependent on cohesiveness and progress towards a goal. When teams meet in person, natural roles tend to emerge as teammates are able to relate to each other on an informal basis. However, virtual teams often depend more on a successful team lead to ensure success when there is not an in-person familiarity. As a virtual team lead on NovoEd, how can you effectively lead your team to the desired outcome? We have 4 tips:

1. Decide what size and type of team you are interested in

Depending on the course, focusing a team around a specified interest can help immediately by connecting with your teammates around a shared interest through the team name and/or description. When there is already a clear topic, goal, or area of interest already decided by the team lead before additional members request to join, we have seen that the team will have higher engagement.

Virtual teams function differently depending on the size. Smaller teams, for example with 3 or 4 members, are much less likely to require an active team lead as teammates are usually fairly equally active. As teams grow bigger, such as when they are 5 or more people, the team lead tends to play an increasingly important role in leading discussion and organization.

As the team lead – consider which type and size of team you prefer. What do you want to be a common area of interest for team members? Do you want a smaller, more intimate and engaged team, or a larger-sized team with more perspectives to enjoy?

2. Urge your teammates to state expectations and intentions

Once members start joining the team, introductions, both formal and informal are great starting points. For example, unusual questions and icebreakers are an excellent way to build informal trust within the team (i.e. “If you could have any wish granted, what would it be?”) Through building informal relationships with your teammates and understanding each other’s backgrounds, you and your team will be better equipped for collaboration

When in-person teams meet, such as at work, expectations have often been established (i.e. this group will meet one hour a week at this time). Online teams have have fewer established expectations – they must first be discussed. In an online learning environment like NovoEd, learners may have different intentions and goals, which can be a challenge when teammates often presume other members of the team to have the same goals and dedication.

As the team lead – consider how you want to encourage your teammates to share their expectations and a bit about themselves. What do you want your teammates to share beyond their location? What are the key things the team members should know about expectations and commitment? As the team lead, you have the unique ability to pose the first couple of questions and then let other team members continue the conversation.

3. Establish your team’s collaboration method and roles

Once your team understands the different intentions of team members and the instructions set up by the teaching team, it is then time to decide how to collaborate to work on the project at hand. If the collaboration discussion has not already begun, the team lead can be influential in starting the conversation about how the team will collaborate, whether it be using Google Docs or Hangouts. Effective teams have a clear structure to use different collaboration tools, and a good team lead will ensure this occurs.

Beyond how your team works together, it is important to clarify how team members contribute through different roles. In online and virtual teams, it can be easy lose track of different members of the team, but clear roles and responsibilities enable more accountability across the team. As team lead, you can start the discussion about roles and encourage team members to volunteer for different roles without directly assigning work to your teammates. Additionally, mixing up the responsibilities based on the project is an effective method of equally dividing up different roles.

As the team lead – it is important to ensure the team is on the same page about how your team will work together as well as how project roles and responsibilities are divided. Does your team understand how project will be accomplished? Do different members of the team understand their role and part in ensuring the project is successful?

4. Follow-up with absent teammates

Beyond setting the right tone with expectations and responsibilities, the most important role a team lead can play is encouraging teammates who fall behind. Having an occasional team member who rarely contributes may not have much of a negative impact impact, but if multiple members of the team fail to participate, the likelihood of success can drastically diminish. As team lead, you can follow-up and encourage other team members to participate what they can.

The first priority with teammates who are not actively participating is to reinforce their position as a team member and provide support. After all, if the team member joined a team, their intent was to be a part of the team, and you want to help them reach that goal! However, if a team member is currently unable to participate in the team, you can provide  them the option (through private messaging) to withdraw from the team so that they can more fully participate and learn with a new team, either in the current course offering or a future offering. Always assume positive intent when interacting with underperforming team members as one never knows what challenges they may be facing outside the course environment.

As the team lead – it is important to keep an eye out for those you can help. If someone falls behind, how can you best encourage their future participation? How can you ensure those who may not be able to participate fully in every activity to have roles in the other activities?


A successful team starts with a shared interest or goal, and is built upon trusting your teammates through understanding their expectations. Additionally, such teams will usually set clear roles and keep teammates honest. Once your team has been successful, make sure you celebrate and thank everyone for their contributions. Remember, your teammates are what make your NovoEd learning experience unique and special!


The Larger Perspective of Tools

A key component of the Coro curriculum has been learning heaps of different Coro tools. In seminars, we utilize these tools and frameworks to take a step back and look more deeply at areas we may not otherwise have explored. As such, we are then able to consider a wider range of possibilities when employing the tools with the eventual goal that we use mechanisms on a regular basis.

This blog entry will take a look at a tool I invented, the larger perspective circle, during our week in Sacramento to demonstrate both the framework itself and how tools can be used more effectively.

The Larger Perspective Circle

As you can see in the larger perspective circle below, this framework includes four components: objective, method, execution, and measurement (OMEM).  While discussing each component, I will also apply them briefly to the issue of education.


Objective: The overall guiding purpose and goal(s) to achieve. Although it is usually best to have fewer goals, you can have multiple ones. Generally, the circle starts here. For education, although there are numerous goals to consider, a key objective I will use for this example is preparing individuals for college.

Method: The planned framework to meet the objective. This is often dictated by conventional norms, but can also provide the opportunity to be more inventive. For preparing individuals for college, the method in the United States is to use college preparatory schools, of the public, charter, and private variety.

Execution: The strategy and follow-through of carrying out a method. The execution is where most time and effort is spent, and covers most of the details and actions from creating regulation to budgeting on the strategy side and implementation on the other. The key differential with the method is that execution is an action phase. The execution for education includes both how school administrators distribute funding and resources within the school and also how the teachers train and instruct the students in the classroom.

Measurement: How the execution will be evaluated and checked against the overall objective. This final step completes the circle and ensures that the execution stays in alignment with the main purpose, and often describes the objective in a measureable format. For the objective of preparing students for college, checking to see what percentage of students go to college is an easy measurement. Even better would be to take a look at their alumni’s success in college and their college graduation rates.

Although all four parts are distinct, they are inherently related to each other and directly influence each other. It can be highly useful to re-evaluate different parts of the circle after thinking about other portions since the connections between the sections becomes more apparent during the process.

Applying and Learning from the Tool

Now that the larger perspective circle has been introduced, what can be deduced from using it in completely different contexts? Since it does apply widely, I will first look at education policy, and then take a look at something completely different, the job search.

1) Education

Much education policy debate revolves around the method and execution portions of the larger perspectives circle. In execution, we often hear debates surrounding the need for more school funding and the importance of more class time, whereas in the method portion, there are many disputes to address, including the one comparing charter schools to public neighborhood schools or even the importance of technical education.

Looking at the other portions of the circle can help explain some of the conflict. In the previous section I intentionally simplified the objective to be only aiming to prepare students for college.  Yet, most people would disagree with that sole purpose, as there is little consensus around the goals of education.  How much of education is meant to prepare students for the workplace versus allowing for social mobility or even preparing students for democratic citizenship? (These goals have been taken from the writings of David Labaree.) When the overall goals of education are not agreed upon and are in conflict with each other, the rest of education policy can suffer.  After all, how can policy makers decide on a method and framework for education when they do not agree on whether the priority should be educating all students equally or allowing students to sort themselves through ‘ability’?

Beyond highlighting the lack of clear objectives for education policy, the larger perspective tool also shines a light on measurement and standardized testing. For examples, if the actual objective of education was to learn basic core competencies, then standardized tests do an excellent job of evaluating a school’s success. However, considering few people believe this is the primary objective, it probably makes sense to have a dialogue about basic education goals, and then discuss how to measure those effectively. Utilizing the larger perspectives circle would enable policymakers to develop a clearer and more effective connection between objectives and measurements.

2) Job Searching

In the completely different context of job-hunting, the larger perspective circle also provides a useful framework. The objective is often not fully considered; even though the primary goal is to find a job, it is also important to contemplate the aspects of the job, such as the field, daily work involved, opportunities for advancement, and how the job fits into an envisioned career.  Once the goals have been identified, it becomes clearer which method is most useful. If there are many jobs that appear easy to attain and fit the objectives, then emailing many cover letters and resumes would likely bring success. On the other hand, if there are only a couple of positions that clearly match the target, then spending more time performing informational interviews and networking is logical.

Once the objective and method has been determined, it is up to the individual to execute their plan successfully. In this section, it is not just about doing the informational interviews and cover letter emails, but also being skillful, such as being presentable in person and avoiding written typos. Finally, although measurement is fairly straightforward (did you secure a job?), it is also the chance to reassess your objectives moving forward and reflect on the success of the job-hunt.

Conclusion – What is the Objective of Tools?

As can be seen in the previous two examples, the larger perspective circle provided new insights to both education policy and job searching.  In both examples, execution is a focus, whereas people often overlook refining the objective. Of course the circle can be applied to many other segments of life and society, and properly considering the whole circle will lead to greater success and productivity.

Now to apply the larger perspective circle to tools as a whole – what is their objective? In short, tools provide new perspectives and insights to how one perceives and interacts with the world.  Arguably, another goal is that the tools should be utilized subconsciously, freeing the mind to focus on fewer tasks. The method of utilizing tools is fairly straightforward: learn the tool and practice using it. When this method is executed, it is important at first to bring a high level of attention to include all aspects of the tool, and then over time integrate them naturally. As for the measurement, it depends on the tool. For the larger perspective circle, success is improved awareness about the overall objective and being able to measure it. Progress could involve intentionally avoiding norms for the method and changing the framework to better meet the objectives. Success for all tools also involves being able to achieve these benefits subconsciously.

Although tools can be quite useful, there is always the risk of over usage. Perhaps one of the more poignant examples occurred while teaching in Singapore. The Singaporean education system revolves around standardized testing, so there are many tools students must learn to master the format of the exams.  As a result, much of what teachers require their students learn and memorize are tools to recreate on exams. Tools can help the students write high-scoring essays. However, when tools must be followed, they become guidelines and laws that restrict further learning. Tools are definitely useful, but they are best used as tools, not rules.

The Coro program itself has given us many tools to utilize on an everyday basis, and it is up to us the fellows to hold ourselves accountable for using them properly.  When employed correctly, frameworks allow us to consider more possibilities and push ourselves beyond societal norms and previous thought limitations. Taking thorough advantage of tools with thought-out exceptions truly thrusts one’s thoughts to extraordinary heights.

Singapore’s Education – An Insider’s Look

Note: This was originally written to be presented at a Unified Educators of San Francisco (UESF)  assembly meeting. It is taken from my personal experience of having taught in Singapore, and only reflects my personal thoughts.

Singapore’s education has been hailed internationally as one of the world’s best education systems, in large part due to its high PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores. Singapore has been successful, especially with Mathematics and Science, although there are other achievements that have been overlooked, such as great work in providing equality of opportunity. However, as with all systems, Singapore still has many challenges such as moving away from intensive testing and working out racial and class issues. In this article, I will investigate these issues and look at what can be learned and how that can be applied to the United States.

I was personally lucky enough see the inner workings of Singapore’s schools by working for 15 months in an all-boys government secondary school (equivalent of grades 7-10). I participated as an International Teaching Associate, an untrained teacher that did not displace any other teachers, but taught and co-taught English, History, Music, and Mathematics.

The Singaporean Ethos – ‘Meritocracy’ and the ‘Equality of Opportunity’

Underpinning much of Singapore’s society is a very strong belief in meritocracy (the idea that people get into position of power on the basis of their ability) and the equality of opportunity (the idea that everyone should get an equal opportunity in life, even if it doesn’t result in the same outcomes). The education system, of course, plays a crucially important role in this. It serves the purpose of giving students an equal opportunity to succeed while also eventually sorting them out on the basis of merit and ability. Singapore achieves these goals somewhat effectively, but not perfectly.

In many senses, Singapore does as good a job as any country providing for an equal early age education. More than 75% of Singaporeans live in public housing that follows strict racial quotas, and, in addition, all Singaporeans are required to attend public schools for primary school, unless they have a certified disability. As a result, there is a general level of mixture with, and equality between, all of the primary schools that promotes Singapore’s ideal of equality of opportunity.

As part of its goal to create a meritocratic society, Singapore follows a very strict system of exams and tracking that starts from an early age. Even by the end of the equivalent of 3rd grade, primary schools start tracking their students internally in order to best teach to their ability. By the end of 6th grade, students take an exam that determines the type and ranking of their secondary school and life trajectory more generally. This determination can still be altered, but only in rare cases. By the end of 10th grade, the students have a another exam (which can differ based on their previous track) which determines whether the students can continue on an academic path.

I saw education planned backwards from the tests. As an English teacher, I was absolutely shocked to discover that the “syllabus” I received from the school was just a practice examination. Then, in conjunction with other teachers, I was expected to schedule the semester to directly cover each of the different types of test questions. Although this test-based learning was not as egregious for the Mathematics I taught (since the  inherent goal is to be able to solve the problems that are on the exam), it made very little sense for the humanities. I felt it was very hard to make history enjoyable, applicable, and memorable when I had to cover how to answer the exam questions instead of the content itself.

Of course, not all students have an equal chance to prove their abilities. In Singapore, pre-primary school education is not provided for free, so poorer students (more likely to be of Malay descent) show up on the first day of school already behind their wealthier peers (more likely to be of Chinese descent). Beyond that, the primary schools are not perfectly equal since children of alumni receive preference, and hence some schools have a much higher concentration of wealth than others. Furthermore, there is a huge tuition (tutoring) business in Singapore, mainly for primary school; this means the wealthier students have another advantage on the exams. By the time students enter secondary school, they have been sorted in a way that often reflects socio-economic status and race. At the same time, such streaming has been legitimized by the idea the students on top are there solely because of merit, leaving some students behind and discouraged. The school I taught at was a working class school that did not have the top test scorers, and it did noticeably depress some students. Once I was asked by a student why I was there, as he seemed to assume a teacher of European descent to be a ‘prized’ teacher who would be teaching at a ‘better’ school.

However, I do want to point out that Singapore has been working hard to perfect alternatives to universities. The government has somewhat controversially kept a strict quota on local university spots for Singaporeans (meaning some students from wealthier families who struggle can just send their kids abroad for a university education), but the government has been focused on bringing up the level and prestige of their polytechnics, technical training schools. Indeed, some students are even beginning to choose polytechnics over a conventional university path if they already know what they want to do.

Education: A Cornerstone of a Business-Focused Government

The city-state of Singapore runs itself very much like a business, and that has many implications for education. Singapore realizes the importance of a well-educated citizenry in order to attract foreign investment and grow economically. As such, education is the second largest part of Singapore’s budget behind the military. Singapore grasps that it competes against companies and other opportunities for the best employees, and realizes the importance of paying government employees well, including teachers. Even though the high payment of government officials has been a cause for public resentment with the the highest paid Prime Minister in the world and the government ministers regularly make over $1 Million a year, teacher’s salaries have not been targeted.  Although teaching is not the most respected profession, overall, teachers are much more respected than in the US and are paid accordingly.

Although Singapore does have a teachers’ union, it has very little importance or power. Without collective bargaining rights or the ability to strike, it functions as a professional organization with workshops. Consequently, teachers are easily overworked in Singapore, and are even officially on duty throughout vacations (even if the school does not specifically require their presence). Many teachers do complain about this, but on the whole, are resigned to it as they realize the importance of working with the kids and also expect the school system to be run in a businesslike fashion.

Thinking economically, the Singapore Ministry of Education has set up a high-stakes evaluation system that enables teachers to earn sizeable bonuses up to a quarter of their annual salary. There is a comprehensive system that includes classroom assessments, test scores, and even time put into extracurricular activities. While not all teachers change what they do to earn the bonuses, there are some who really focus on the evaluations for the bonus and also for future promotions as teachers or into the Ministry of Education itself. I noticed that emphasis on the evaluation system means priorities can be a bit skewed; for example eschewing classroom prep time in order to spend the time planning other random extra curricular events for the kids that can be added to the evaluation.

Final Thoughts

The adulation of Singapore’s Math and Science curriculum does a bit of a disservice. Indeed, we can review how they teach Math and Science, but by focusing solely on that, we miss many other learning opportunities. Singapore does have other strengths: although Singapore still struggles with racial and class issues, it has worked hard to equalize the primary schools. Furthermore, Singapore has placed public education and teachers into a critically important position in society. Singapore provides a great look at some of the unintended consequences of many policies that reformers advocate. It is important to evaluate teachers and pay them well, but how do we make sure the evaluations are effective and measure all possible avenues of success? Student assessment may be useful, but is a system of test-based learning optimal?

Although the US education system has many problems, Singapore is not a panacea. When I told Singaporean teachers one of the reasons I was in Singapore was to learn about their excellent education system, they would usually laugh at my naiveté. Often they would mention that Singapore was aspiring to be more like the US in terms of moving away from testing, and also trying to encourage more critical thinking and creativity in the classroom. Indeed, the  program that took me to Singapore aims to bring American and British teaching styles to Singapore to help change the system.

In conclusion, there is much to learn from studying other education systems, but they are not perfect and will not provide a quick fix. Studying other systems, like Singapore’s, provides the opportunity to see the effects of educational policies and access them. Since it is always easier to focus on the successes of other education systems while focusing on the flaws of your own, one should mind this tendency. Yes, education in the United States has many issues, but the US should not lose its strengths while trying to fix its problems.