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Thursday, November 03, 2005

Why Online Collaborations Fail


Ask online students if there was anything they disliked in their last online course, and you're likely to get a resounding "I hated the group work!" Best practices for online courses tend to place a great deal of importance on collaborative learning, either in the form of discussion boards, or in group projects. But while discussion boards work quite well, depending on the skill of the facilitator and the nature of the questions, group projects are often such miserable failures that they taint the learner's perception of the entire course.

What happened? What went wrong? There are usually many factors, but a few are listed below:

Too complicated. The project contains too many steps to reach the final outcome. The complexity makes it difficult to understand and to delegate work, and to set achievable goals.

Solution: Instead of requiring one large group project, ask the group to do four or five small group projects that will require just two or three steps, rather than dozens.

Time conflicts. Required collaborations do not reflect the real time commitments of the participants, nor do they reflect schedules or time zone differences.

Solution: Give the team at least a week to do each project, no matter how small. Ask the individual team members what they are doing to find out and accommodate each other's time constraints.

Friction between team members. Team members disagree, express frustration, or stop communicating altogether. Some team members are deliberately obstructive, or criticize work, endlessly debate small points, or refuse to contribute at all. Instead of working on the problem, the energy of the group is spent in conflict resolution. Some may drop out. Others find they become passive when they believe that their input does not matter, and they let the dominant team members do the work.

Solution: Define the roles as well as the tasks. Provide guidelines for team-member roles, and describe actions to be taken by team members.

Tasks are vague, poorly defined. Although the outcome may be defined and described well, the individual tasks are not clearly defined, nor are they delegated in an effective manner. Tasks are repeated needlessly, or done with contradictory results.

Solution: Define and describe the tasks in terms of what needs to be done, how to do it, and how to present the results.

No clearly defined goal or outcome. The overall goal or desired outcome may be imprecisely described or defined. It is important to clearly define the concrete attributes: length, structure, content, purpose, format, complexity.

Solution: Make sure that the outcome and goals are as clearly defined as possible. "SMART" goal-setting is ideal: Specific, Measured, Acheivable, Reasonable, Time-based. Of course, there are downsides to having rigidly defined outcomes. They can inhibit extremely creative and driven students, and they can result in conformity and mediocrity.

Resentment because of lack of work parity. Team members become angry because the work load is not evenly distributed. Some team members may be perceived as slackers or freeloaders, who take credit but refuse to pull their weight. The converse can also be true. There may be resentment because one team member will attempt to dominate and not allow individuals to participate in the process. The dominant person may be perceived as a bully, much to his / her surprise. She thought she was simply being efficient, proactive, and "Type A."

Solution: Listen. List the roles and the behaviors expected of the roles.

Competitive rather than collaborative. Group members are caught up in proving that they are "right" and that the others are not. They do not want to modify any of their work in order to have it mesh or blend with the others in order to produce a coherent whole.

Solution: Separate the tasks and roles so that there is division of labor, rather than overlap.

No sense of community. There is a failure to bond, and hence a failure to thrive. Collaborations with this problem sometimes never get off the ground.

Solution: Ask team members to post photos, details about themselves that they'd like to share, and to start a discussion board or forum in which they discuss current events and items of interest.

Irrelevant activities. Team members may resist doing activities they perceive to be irrelevant to the overall goal or objective they envisioned when joining the group. Even those who go ahead and do the activities may feel resentful.

Solution: Let the team members know how their work ties into the final objective (the project), and how it ties into a larger world as well.

Collaborative papers require "blending" rather than stand-alone components. The collaboration is expected to produce a paper that flows as though it were written by a single person. This can pose a monumental, even insurmountable, challenge because individual voices, writing styles, even format can be completely at odds. Further problems surface when individual team members resent the way that their work has been edited.

Solution: Develop structures that allow individuals to insert their own work in sections clearly identified as pertaining to them. Do not try to blend or mesh the parts.

These are only a few suggestions. There are more, which will be presented at a later date. At that time, there will also be a discussion of types of collaboration projects that work well, and examples will be provided.

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