Last year, I began sharing the details about my experience with the University of Phoenix‘s online campus. I completed an MBA through this program, and experienced the best and the worst of what the school has to offer. Nowhere is the wide range of possible experienced more clear than in dealing with the university’s “learning teams.”
To freshen up on my experience, please read the decision, admissions, course logistics, and the curriculum, as well an aside about the university’s purchase of naming rights to a professional sports stadium.
The basis for a significant portion of the assignments throughout each course is the “learning team.”
The teams are usually assigned by the facilitator during the first week of each six week course on the basis of similar degree focus or time zone, but some facilitators allow the students to suggest their teammates.
Throughout the remainder of each course, the learning team would be required to meet several times a week. For the online courses, this was accomplished using the chat room feature of whichever instant messaging software the team could agree on. Early on in the degree, it was also required for the teams to submit to the facilitator a chat log of the discussion, but somewhere along the lines, this requirement disappeared.
Each six-week course required, in addition to the papers written individually, three team hypothetical business case papers, business case simulation reflections, and in the case of some courses, problem sets. In order to get everything done, it usually meant you would be spending several hours a day working with your team members or working on the team assignments and submitting them for review by other team members.
This is project management on steroids. It’s a reflection — albeit intensified — of real working conditions in the corporate world. Working closely with three to five other students to complete quality work over the internet is an interesting experience, and there were many obstacles to ensuring that level of quality, especially during the first year.
When working with randomly assigned team members, some of whom have nothing in common, differences in work habits become apparent. Some students wanted to control all aspects of the assignment while others wanted to do as little work as possible. Part of working as a team is adjusting to the strengths and weaknesses of others, all of which is intensified due to the style of communication that was foreign to many people.
In the first few classes through working in teams, I discovered a number of people who should not have been attempting to earn a master’s degree. I’m not trying to be judgmental, but a certain level of familiarity with the English language should be a requirement for earning a bachelor’s degree, a prerequisite for the master’s degree. I am not referring to individuals who have spoken a non-English language their entire life, I’m referring to native English speakers who cannot string two sentences together or create a paragraph with a concrete main idea. I won’t hesitate to mention the creative spelling, punctuation, and grammar I encountered. This made editing and proofreading papers containing contributions from all team members one of the most difficult parts of group assignments.
This issue of “skill level” largely disappeared by the time I was attending the more important management decision making courses later in the program. In fact, in my “Cases in Decision Making” course, my team consisted of some of the most intelligent and experienced individuals I’ve “met” in the world of business.
The “learning team” approach to education is something that is missing from many traditional master’s degrees. You certainly get more from your education by working with your peers than you would if you’re just sitting in the back of a lecture hall and working on all assignments individually. I’m glad the team experience was a part of my education at the University of Phoenix despite its immense frustrations at the beginning.
It certainly gave me a lot of experience working with and getting results from people who don’t want to be there, shouldn’t be there, or have a wide range of personalities and strengths, just like I do now at my day job. It also provided me with exposure to high-level executives of a variety of companies, large and small, from whom I was happy to learn.
This learning team experience is at the same time one of the best and worst aspects of the University of Phoenix MBA program. I’m glad I stuck with the program to the end for the opportunity to learn from intelligent and hard-working businesspeople, and looking back I see the value in learning how to manage a team of people not committed to excellence, but it was a rough experience most of the time.
I don’t miss waiting up at the last minute — 2:00 or 3:00 am Eastern time — for the last team member to submit a portion of the particular assignment so I could finish combining all contributions and turn a mish-mash of style, voice, and interpretive grammar into a cohesive, readable paper.
This is Part 5 of a series about my experiences with the University of Phoenix Online. Here is what has been published so far.
- Part 1: The Decision
- Part 2: Admissions
- Part 3: Course Logistics
- Part 4: Curriculum
- Part 5: The Team Experience
Updated May 22, 2011 and originally published July 25, 2007.