Getting a Handle on Group Dynamics
In This Chapter ▶ Identifying strategies for being a successful group member ▶ Resolving conflict online Do you smile or cringe when you hear the words group project? We find that students have extreme views: Either they truly appreciate group projects or they really detest them. Those who appreciate working in a group have had positive experiences and see the value multiple people can bring to a project. Others have had a bad experience working with peers who have done nothing, leaving them to pick up the slack.
One of the biggest questions we get from students and other instructors we train is “Why group work?” Besides the typical “because we said so” or the overused cliché “two heads are better than one,” educational research supports the use of groups as a means of helping students construct and retain knowledge. Not to mention the opportunity it gives them to learn and practice marketable skills.
This book serves as a testament to the power of distant collaboration. Not only do we, your humble authors, live in different parts of the same state, but the editors and other technical staff live and work out-of-state. Some of us have no idea what the other contributors look like. Most communication occurs via e-mail and phone. So, when we ask our students to complete online group projects, we truly are helping them learn marketable skills that easily transfer to the workplace.
Online collaboration takes time, communication, organization, and dedication on the part of all group members. This chapter provides you with strategies for successfully participating in online groups and communicating effectively with peers, including in times of conflict.
Making Your Online Group Successful So how do online groups work? Just like in the face-to-face classroom, an instructor may ask students to create a common document or product as a team. Students may be able to pick their group members, or groups may be assigned by the instructor. (In most cases, the instructor assigns groups to save time.) Students contribute to the final product by sharing research, writing, and editing responsibilities. The difference for online students is that they must be organized enough to do this from a distance. The following sections talk about how to make the overall collaboration process successful.
Keep in mind that you’ll do some of the following steps at the same sitting. For example, you may make your introduction and initial posts about establishing roles one right after the other — before others even have time to reply. Otherwise, the time it takes to wait for replies in the asynchronous environment can delay your progress to a point of no return. Take initiative, and don’t be afraid to be the first to post your thoughts regarding next steps and the process for taking those steps. In most cases, others go along with ideas presented first as a way of moving forward with the project. Be sure to post in a manner that is respectful and doesn’t seem pushy. Otherwise, your plan may backfire.
Introducing yourself in a group forum After your group has been given its assignment, it’s time to introduce yourself to your fellow group members so you can begin organizing the project. Most likely your instructor will provide you with a private discussion forum to communicate with one another. From the students’ perspective, these forums look and function like any other discussion forums (see Chapter 10 for an introduction to discussions). The only difference is that only you, your fellow group members, and your instructor can access it.
You can organize this forum by creating new discussion threads specific to conversation topics. For example, your first thread might be titled “Group Introductions.” Figure 12-1 illustrates an online discussion forum that’s organized in this manner.
Before you jump too deep into the content of your assignment, it’s important to set a collaborative tone among your teammates. We recommend introducing yourself as soon as possible. Your introduction should be brief and provide essential contact information. Provide the following information in your introduction:
✓ Name and brief introduction: Include a brief background of any experience you may have in the subject matter, your professional goals, and any skills that may help complete the assignment. ✓ Contact information: Include as many methods for contacting you as possible, including your school e-mail address, phone number, and instant messenger ID. For security purposes, we don’t recommend providing home addresses. If by any chance your group is able to meet face-to-face, choose a public location, such as a library or an Internet café. ✓ Available times to meet synchronously: Provide your peers with the days and times you’re able to meet synchronously. (We discuss having real-time meetings in more detail later in this chapter.) ✓ Your desired role: If you have a preferred role you would like to take, this is the time to share it. Whether you want to be the group leader, editor, or take on some other role, let the group know. The sooner you do this, the more likely you are to get what you want. (See the next section for more about the roles of group members.)
Establishing a leader and other roles After group members’ introductions, the next task you need to accomplish is to work with your group to establish roles within the group. By establishing roles up front, you reduce conflict later when bigger decisions need to be made.
No matter what role you assume within your group, every member is expected to contribute equally. Therefore, tasks such as research and writing are the responsibility of all members. Establishing roles helps organize the group by making different members responsible for extraneous tasks such as content structure, time management, and content review.
Here are a few roles to consider when establishing your group:
✓ Leader: The group’s leader is responsible for the overall management of the project. The leader’s job is to facilitate the processes for setting deadlines, delegating tasks, and staying on track. ✓ Editor: The editor’s job is to critically review each group member’s contribution and comment on grammar, spelling, content quality, consistency in language usage, and so on. ✓ Submitter: The submitter’s role is to format and submit the final draft of the project to the instructor on behalf of the group.
If your group is communicating via the discussion forums, one member will need to initiate some kind of voting process for deciding on roles. We recommend that you take the initiative and post your preferred role as soon as possible in the appropriate discussion topic. For example, if you have leadership skills and would like to volunteer for this role, simply write something like “Hey, everyone! I’m really looking forward to working with each of you on this project. I’d be happy to take on the leader role if no one is opposed to it. I recommend that we post our preferred roles and vote on them by Wednesday so that we can move forward with the project. Let me know what you think.” If there are more workers than there are roles, that’s okay. What’s most important is that each person’s complete workload is equal to the other members of the group. So, the editor may do less research and actual writing as a way of leveling the playing field.
Setting up a group schedule Whether your group plans to meet in real time (see the next section) or communicate solely in an asynchronous fashion (via e-mail and your private discussion forum), creating a group schedule is important. Your schedule should include task benchmarks, deadlines, and formal progress check-ins. Be sure to document the schedule and post progress information in a location where your instructor can see it (such as inside a topic titled Group Progress). One way of making sure everyone understands the schedule and their responsibilities is to post the schedule within a discussion topic and ask all members to reply to the post with a simple statement such as, “I have read and agree to meet the deadlines provided within the posted schedule.” This makes everyone accountable for completing their part. Table 12-1 is an example of what a group project schedule might look like:
Meeting in real time Completing tasks in an asynchronous environment can take awhile as you wait for peers to reply to posts, answer e-mails, and so on. Therefore, we recommend you find a way to meet synchronously, or in real time, especially during the initial organizing stage. And, if you and your group have the ability to meet synchronously multiple times throughout the project, take advantage of it. (See the later section “Web conferencing” for details on methods you can use to meet synchronously.)
By scheduling a definite start and stop time for your meeting and then sticking to the schedule, you force yourselves to stay on task.
During your synchronous meetings, you should briefly introduce yourselves and then get right down to business. Your first meeting should include an overview of the project to make sure all members of the group are on the same page. You should also review your established roles and begin to break the project down into manageable tasks.
Once everyone knows what the project tasks are, the leader can delegate them to the group and set deadlines for each. Future meetings can be used to check in on each other’s progress and discuss any problems or issues you may be having. These meetings are usually very short and keep everyone on track.
Want to really impress the group and make your meeting run even more smoothly? Create an agenda ahead of time that provides your interpretation of the project and your recommended tasks and deadlines. The more you bring to the table, the faster you’ll be able to get through your meeting and focus on completing the project. Consider doing this even if roles have not been determined yet and no one has been elected as the group’s leader. A quick message to the group via e-mail or discussion forum post to let them know you are planning to do this will help communicate your dedication to the project’s success and reduce the chances of someone else duplicating work.
If your Web conferencing tool has a record option, be sure to record your meeting so that your group and your instructor can review it later if needed. If recording is not an option, a group member should be assigned the role of secretary and that person should post a brief overview of each meeting, outlining tasks and deadlines, in your group’s private discussion forum. This helps your group and your instructor to stay up-to-date on your group’s progress.
Speaking of your instructor, feel free to invite her to your group’s synchronous meetings. She may not be able to attend, but at least you’re keeping her in the loop. If she does attend, conduct your meeting as usual and allow her to lurk in the background. However, don’t be afraid to take advantage of her presence by asking questions if needed.
Using collaborative tools As you find out in the following sections, you can use quite a few Web-based tools to collaborate and communicate with your group. These tools are often external to your course management system. Many of these tools are free for public use.
The key is to either use tools that are very simple to learn or only use tools every member of the group is already familiar with. Trying to learn a new tool in the middle of a group project can be frustrating and distract you from completing the project on time.
Document collaboration Suppose you and your fellow group members are asked to produce a written document, an essay. In the “old” days, one person would write something and forward the document to all other group members. Then, everyone would provide feedback and send back their comments individually. The originator would have to open several documents and do the best job possible of combining the input of the others.
No longer is this necessary, thanks to Wiki technology. A Wiki is a collaborative tool that is Web-based and allows multiple people to contribute to the same document. In a group-project situation, this means that you can collaborate on the same document at the same time as your fellow group members. You go to a Web site and log in (after you have created an account), and the Web page looks just like a common word-processing, spreadsheet, or presentation program. You create a page and invite group members to join. Once they join (and create their own accounts), you can all log in at the same time and view the same page simultaneously. It doesn’t matter what software you have on your individual machines because everything is handled through that Web page! Each of you can edit and save the copy. Eventually, one of you can save a final copy and turn it in for your assignment or link your instructor and class to the page. Wikis can be used for group projects, company policy documents, and much more.
One of the more common Wiki applications on the Web right now is GoogleDocs (http://docs.google.com). With GoogleDocs, you can collaboratively create a word-processing document, spreadsheet, presentation, or Web form. This service is free and allows a document originator the ability to invite others to either view only or edit the document. Figure 12-2 illustrates a document created using GoogleDocs.
For your essay assignment, one group member or the instructor would start the document. Then, that person would invite the other group members to view the document as collaborators in order to provide them the permission needed to edit the document. Based on your group’s organizational meeting,
the editor might add headings to the document as a way of visually dividing it into pieces. Group members would then go in and begin filling in the blanks as they completed their research.
Web conferencing If your group decides to meet synchronously, a few tools are available to help facilitate the process. Consider the following variables when choosing a synchronous tool:
✓ Availability: Don’t spend extra time looking for tools if your course provides them for you. For example, one of the institutions we teach for provides each class with a virtual office space via Elluminate. The space is open to students 24×7 and students access it directly from inside their course. ✓ Functionality: Some tools are limited as to what features they offer. For example, the telephone provides voice communication, but you can’t share documents via the phone. Skype combines voice and text-based chat only. Other tools, such as Elluminate, provide interactive features that allow users to share voice, text, whiteboards, each others’ computer screens, and more. Choose your tools according to what you need, or learn to work around your chosen tool’s limits. ✓ Cost: Unless your institution gives you access to some of these tools, you’re not likely to be able to justify the cost of purchasing comprehensive services like Elluminate as an individual. Some of these tools can cost upwards of $400 per user per year. Other tools, like Skype, are free and can meet your needs just as easily for the project at hand.
Two available synchronous communication tools are Skype and Elluminate.
✓ Skype (www.skype.com) is a text and audio chat program that allows users to chat with one another either through text or voice. Currently, Skype allows you to conference up to 50 people via chat and 5 people via voice. The service is free when connecting computer-to-computer. The program also allows you to dial landline and mobile numbers from your computer for a minimal per minute fee. To efficiently use this tool, each group member needs to establish an account. (Yes, that means yet another login and password; see Chapter 3 for an introduction on keeping everything straight.) Once everyone has an account, they share their account names with each other just like phone numbers. At the time of the meeting, each group member logs in to the group’s Wiki (see the previous section) and Skype. A designated group member initiates the Skype conference, calling the rest of the group members. Figure 12-3 illustrates a conference call using Skype. Once connected, the group can use the voice feature just as if they were talking on the phone, except this time it’s free and doesn’t cost you any minutes. Because GoogleDocs allows multiple people to edit a document
at the same time, one group member can be taking notes and editing your group’s document as you talk. The other group members can see the changes as they are made. For conferencing tools such as Skype, users need a microphone and speakers. We recommend a combination headset with microphone.
✓ Multi-modal tools, such as Elluminate (www.elluminate.com), are for groups wanting a little more interaction capabilities within their Webconferencing tool. Multi-modal refers to the user’s ability to interact using a variety of methods. For example, Elluminate allows users to interact using voice, text, video, whiteboard, application sharing, and more. Tools such as Elluminate can be very expensive. They’re often licensed by the institution for instructor and student use. However, depending on your group size, you may be able to use the tool for free even if your institution doesn’t have a license. Elluminate offers a free service called Elluminate vRoom (www.elluminate.com/vroom) that allows you to sign up for a free virtual space and invite up to two other people into that space at one time. To use such a space, each group member clicks on a link that takes them to a virtual meeting space. The meeting’s organizer could prepare a few slides in PowerPoint and load them to the whiteboard where all participants could see them. The slides would have the meeting’s agenda on it and possibly space between each agenda item to take notes. Each attendee uses a speaker/microphone combination (headset recommended) to talk to and hear the other participants. During the course of the meeting, one member of the group could share their computer screen with the other attendees, projecting the shared document.
This way everyone could see and comment as one of the members edited the document. Figure 12-4 illustrates an example of a group meeting occurring in an Elluminate virtual office.
Being patient Okay, time for a reality check. Even if you do everything we tell you to do in the preceding sections, not everybody in your group will be able to dedicate the same amount of time to your project. Inevitably, life happens: Kids get sick, work is busy, and other life events distract your group members from participating at the most desirable level. Therefore, patience is a must! Even the most dedicated group members may have a different work schedule or live in a different time zone. Therefore, communication may be delayed.
The sooner you can organize your group, the sooner you will feel more relaxed. Once you are organized, you can work independently on your own time schedule — just as long as you meet established deadlines (see the example of a group schedule in Table 12-1). As you work alone, you need to trust that your fellow group members are doing the same. That’s why having periodic check-ins is important. You definitely don’t want to find out that a group member has done nothing the day the project is due.
Resolving Conflicts Whenever people are asked to collaborate, the potential for conflict exists. The ability to be patient and strategically resolve conflict is an important skill when participating in an online course. The lack of participation of a group member or the misinterpretation of written text can lead to frustration and resentment — distracting you from the objectives of the course. As you read this section, don’t just think about how to resolve conflict; consider how to prevent it as well.
Understanding the conflicts you may encounter (and handling them) In our experience, conflict occurs between students in the online environment for three reasons: They disagree on the subject matter; a student says something that others find offensive; or resentment sets in when one or more students are perceived as not pulling their weight.
Disagreeing on the subject matter Sometimes students disagree on the subject matter. In a classroom, you would think this would be the most prevalent source of conflict. However, this type of conflict rarely occurs online, and when it does (typically in a discussion forum), the instructor should step in to help facilitate a resolution.
If the conflict is initiated via text, contact your instructor and provide her with the specific forum where she can find the post. If the conflict occurred during a synchronous session, contact your instructor and provide her with as much detail as possible, even if you are merely a witness to the conflict. Use your instructor’s phone number for issues that need to be resolved immediately. If you have to leave a message, follow up with an e-mail as well. Some instructors, like us, get their e-mail on their cellphones and get information faster that way than from voice mails on our office phones. Information should be presented in a factual and professional manner.
Finding a submission offensive One student may write something that other students consider offensive. Very rarely are these incidences intentional. Students sometimes write before thinking about how others might interpret their written words.
If you encounter a post that you feel is offensive, don’t assume that it was an intentional attack. Politely respond by asking for clarification, and explain why clarification may be needed without pointing fingers. For example, “Jane, thanks for your response. I’d like to ask for clarification about your point on . . . the way I read it made me think you were saying. . . .”
If a post is blatantly offensive, don’t fuel the fire by responding further. Contact your instructor immediately and allow her to facilitate the resolution process (see the next section for tips on how to communicate effectively with your instructor in this situation). The instructor will most likely delete the post and deal with the situation behind the scenes.
An ounce of prevention here is worth a pound of cure. To avoid offending others, think before you write and reread your posts before submitting them. A simple slip of the comma can really change the meaning of a sentence.
Simmering over slackers Resentment tends to build when one or more students don’t pull their weight. This often occurs when organization or communication within a group is lacking. Even the most understandable situations can lead to conflict if not communicated correctly. For example, we have both witnessed a student who has had a family emergency to attend to, requiring the student to step away from class momentarily. However, because the student did not communicate this to the group, the other group members started resenting her, which began to destroy the entire group dynamics. Had the student explained the situation to the group before removing herself, most likely, the other students would have supported her lack of participation. Not only would they have provided emotional support, they would have gladly picked up her share of the work.
To avoid this situation, be sure to communicate with your group on a consistent basis, even if it’s just to say “hello.” Your virtual presence will reassure your group that you are on task and on time. On the other hand, if you find that a group member is not participating, try contacting that person semi- privately. We recommend that you include your instructor on all communication, especially when you’re dealing with lack-of-participation issues, hence the phrase “semi-privately.” If your instructor wants to be less involved in the day-to-day communication, she’ll let you know. Write an e-mail to the group member who is not participating, and copy your instructor. Do not blind copy the instructor because you want the instructor’s involvement to be known by your fellow group member.
If, after two attempts, you don’t receive a response from your peer, let your instructor take it from there. Start making backup plans for completing that person’s share of the project and move forward. Don’t let one person’s lack of participation hold you up from completing the project and having a positive group experience. However, continue to keep the non-participating member in the communication loop as a way of documenting that person’s lack of participation.
One activity the group’s secretary (or other designated group member) should consider when first delegating tasks is to create a spreadsheet of what is to be done, who is to do it, and when it’s due. Then as tasks are completed, the secretary can document who actually completed the task and when.
This encourages all group members to be responsible for completing their part of the project and provides the instructor with a clear picture of each member’s level of participation.
Bringing problems to your instructor’s attention A good instructor will most likely know when a problem is brewing from having observed goings-on in the background, especially if you include your instructor in your group communications as we suggest in the preceding section. However, a good instructor will also provide the group with some time to resolve conflicts on their own without stepping in at the first signs of a problem.
Whenever you need to contact the instructor about a group member not living up to expectations, you may feel like a tattletale, but it’s okay. The classroom is a good training ground for people to learn responsibility and the social repercussions of not living up to that responsibility. A good instructor will be able to handle the situation professionally in a manner that doesn’t reflect poorly on you or other group members. Instead, the instructor will focus on the unwanted behavior and coach the student on how to improve that behavior.
The way you approach your instructor when you’re dealing with a group conflict is very important. Use the following guidelines when communicating to your instructor:
✓ Communicate privately. When you reach the point where you feel that communicating directly with your peer isn’t working, communicate the situation privately to your instructor so that you can focus more on you and the next steps you should take to move forward. ✓ Be direct and use facts. Politely explain the situation, and share with the instructor any communication you have had with your group member. The more information you can provide the instructor, the better. Hopefully, the instructor already has some idea about what’s going on, but it never hurts to be thorough. ✓ Don’t complain. Your instructor understands the repercussions of someone not participating in a group project. Complaining about the situation only distracts you from moving forward and makes you look needy to your instructor. ✓ Have a backup plan. Ensure your instructor that you’re ready to move forward with a backup plan and ask whether this plan should include the group member who is failing to participate. ✓ Ask for direction. End your communication by thanking your instructor and confirming that it’s okay to move forward with your backup plan.
You may be asking yourself who should ultimately be responsible for reporting conflict to the instructor. Generally, the leader should be the person who contacts the instructor about problems within the group. However, sometimes, other group members have problems with the leader. In this situation, if the other members of the group are communicating with one another, it’s best if only one person is chosen to contact the instructor. Otherwise, if you feel there is a problem that no one is addressing, you have a choice: You can either report the situation to the instructor privately, or you can politely initiate the group deciding on who should contact the instructor by posting something like “Hi, all. It seems that we may be at an impasse, which is blocking our ability to complete our tasks effectively. I’d like to propose we ask our instructor for guidance. I’d be more than happy to contact her on our behalf, unless someone else would rather do it. I’m confident with the proper guidance we can work this out and create an amazing project to turn in.”