A balancing act

In two previous posts this week I tried to identify some of the reasons why students fail to engage in collaborative online learning environments, and also tried to suggest some possible solutions to the problem of social loafing. I thought Dean Groom's response - Why aren't they doing anything? - yesterday was particularly useful because it highlighted that there are differences between engagement in formal learning environments and informal environments such as massive multiplayer online games. I agree and suggest that it must be to do with different kinds of motivation. MMORPGS are designed with massive participation in mind and are usually more fun. Today I want to talk about some of the ways online groups work together.

Some previous research can shed light on these issues. In 1994 McGrath and Hollingshead showed that groups interacting using technology tend to take on specific roles within the group, and this often occurs spontaneously. They quote the theory of TIP (time, interaction and performance) which regards groups operating continuously and simultaneously within the three separate functions of production, member support and group well-being. There are in fact three types of support required by online learners (Carnwell, 1999). They are academic support, emotional and social support and technical support. I have observed with my own student groups that the last two are often taken care of by the members of the group themselves. It's the first one that is the sole preserve of the e-tutor.

Palloff and Pratt (1999) discovered that in many of their online student groups, individual learners emerged to take on specific roles in the support and group well-being functions, such as 'encourager', and conflict 'mediator'. They also saw that there are students who take it upon themselves to chase up other students when they have not been seen participating for a while in the online group discussions (akin to the student self-policing I mentioned yesterday). It would be interesting to discover whether such students would also adopt similar roles in a conventional classroom setting, but Palloff and Pratt offer no information on this. They do however, comment that the emergence of these roles is a strong indicator that community is forming within the online community, and that this mirrors the processes that occur in traditional community settings.

It's often the case that online environments mirror what happens in the real world. Online tutors often find themselves in a fine balancing act - they should be aware of these issues, intervening when necessary, but knowing when to step back so that the virtual group can self-regulate.


Carnwell, R. (1999) Distance education and the need for dialogue. Open Learning, 14 (1), 50-55.
McGrath, J. E. and Hollingshead, A. B. (1994) Groups Interacting with Technology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Palloff, R. M. and Pratt, K. (1999) Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace: Effective Strategies for the Online Classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

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