Sunday, 29 November 2009

Some thoughts on collaborative group working in an asynchronous forum

We've finished the collaborative activity 6.3, and to be honest the requirement to refelect on it in TMA02 is like asking me to go and relive a car crash. I can reflect on this in a positive way, by completely detatching it from the specifics of our own group experience, but I don't find the kinds of reflections in our group forums which criticise the actions of certain individuals helpful, and so won't be responding there. Similarly, my reflections here are about group work in general, and not our specific roles, tasks, or outcomes.

One reflection I had early on was regarding the importance of understanding roles in group. It was suggested that we should allocate roles at the beginning of the task, but I think this is actually very hard for any group to do from the position of not knowing the individuals in the group, and not yet having a clear conception of the task. While it might be useful to have individuals take on specific roles, in a group which does not know each other well you cannot tell who will be suited to what roles. This problem isn't unique to online forums (there'll be a similar difficulty in any ad-hoc team), but the additional constraints and problems of asynchronous communication make this all the harder for a new online team.

Communication in an asynchronous forum is fraught with well-documented difficulties, including misinterpretations leading to upset or offence, problems with crossed threads (e.g. two people writing at the same time, and so unable to see the other's response, and therefore appearing to ignore it or to duplicate suggestions) and the sheer difficulty of catching up with a multi-threaded discussion if you are away from any period of time. There are difficulties with language and explanations - what appears clear in the author's head can easily be interpreted differently by readers. Given the lack of opportunity to clarify misunderstandings, the asynchronous online forum seems to require extra levels of clarity, precision and tact, including judging when not to respond. There is also a difficulty in reaching agreements or decisions when there is no way to know when individual participants will be available to read and respond.

The nature of the collaborative forum forces participants to use certain agreed working methods. While these may be accepted by all members of the group, it is likely that no one method will be the optimum for everyone's individual learning and working styles. Organisation which one person sees as adding clarity may muddy the waters for another, for example the use of several locations for different elements of discussion - for some it may be very useful to keep aspects discreet, for others this may just add to confusion of where to find content.

Clearly, given my use of a car crash analogy, this group work has actually been a hurtful experience. More frustrating is that I'm not clear what I was supposed to learn from it - and I have seen comments from so many demotivated students in this past fortnight. The requirement to reflect on the group's success is fine done in private, but postings to group forums just seem likely to further inflame misunderstandings and upset. This has left me very likely to be very wary of engaging with group work in future, and rather than help me build trust and community, has left me wanting to run screaming from the place. I don't believe this was the OU's target, but the reflection seems to be requiring further raking over of ground which many of us just want to move on from and leave behind.


  1. Hi Alice,
    I can see your point about this harsh experience. I think the main reason why we had difficulty communicating was because of the nature of the assignment. If it was a shorter assignment, we would not have had so many hurdles to discuss with. And as you have mentioned, the difficulty for team members to decide on the level of competence for allocating task distribution. I think you were a great help in the group, so thank you for your support!

  2. Hi Sirin. Thanks for your support - it was a pleasure working with you!

  3. Hi Alice,

    A great post as It really sums up how I feel about the group task and how detailed group reflection would only make things worse.

  4. Alice,
    Great blog post, and as an outside observer on your group's experience I can well understand your frustrations. You probably did not have the chance to notice, but Group B had a very different experience to yours. Rather than having lots of differences of opinions and participation early on, we had a different dynamic - half our group being quite slow to become active. Whilst a bit frustrating, I suspect it was less difficult to manage than the dynamics that your group experienced.

    I had wondered, in a moment of frustration when things seemed slow to get going at our end, whether we had been deliberately set up to have a different experiences?

    What is for sure is that collaborative exercises must be wisely set up and sensibly scaffolded. One issue that I feel is important is the amount of practice we had previously had in online group work. In previous H80X programmes in which I have participated, there has been more emphasis, in early stages on the course, on getting us used to organising ourselves as an online group. The personal reflection dimension of H808 has been the prevailing culture of this course, which has not given us that collective grounding as a group.

    I can't imagine that a car crash was what the OU intended, but I'm sorry to hear that this has been your experience. I think it would be a pity if this experience put your off collaborative online group activities - in group B we ended up enjoying and feeling pleased with our experience. Let me know if you'd like to know more about this.

    Best wishes,