Group dynamics

See also Learning processes

"A community needs an affective structure." Kreijns, Kirschner and Jochems (2003)

Kreijns, Kirschner and Jochems (2003) of the Open University in the Netherlands[reference Kreijns, K., Kirschner, P.A. & Jochems, W. (2003). Identifying the pitfalls for social interaction in computer-supported collaborative learning environments: a review of the research, Computers in Human Behavior, 19(3), 335-353] point to two pitfalls in online collaborative learning:

  • "taking for granted that social interaction automatically takes place just because an environment makes it technologically possible"
  • "the tendency to restrict social interaction to educational interventions aimed at cognitive processes while social (psychological) interventions aimed at socio-emotional processes are ignored, neglected or forgotten"

They argue that "these observations stress the necessity of taking a closer look at the social and social psychological aspects of collaborative learning and how they can be supported." How can one apply insights about group dynamics to collaborative learning situations? For example, how do the 'phases' that it is sometimes claimed groups move through (forming, storming, norming, performing etc) affect the design of colllaborative learning environments?


In an article on social software and the politics of groups Clay Shirky (2003) says: "Social software is political science in executable form." His focus is fairly strongly on group norms and rules as a means of mediating individual and group interests. Slashdot's rules, for example are "no censorship", "moderation by members in good standing", "meta-moderation" and "karma" (points earned towards becoming a member in good standing), while LiveJournal operates by working on an invitation-only basis.

Bion's small-group dynamics

Skirky (2003) in his provocatively titled "A group is its own worst enemy", highlights three types of self-defeating patterns identified by Bion in groups:

  • pairing off (e.g. flirtation)
  • the identification and vilification of external enemies (e.g. 'Microsoft' or 'management')
  • religious veneration (things that may not be criticized)

Group history/trust

Much real-life learning (whether online or offline) happens in the context of groups or communities (see also the section on communities of practice) with a life and a purpose beyond the immediate learning situation. Attempts to emulate this in formal teaching environments are often not very successful due to the artificial, time-limited nature of the group being created.

"I have commented on the use of online communities in the traditional educational setting before. Characteristically, such communities consist of a limited number of members, usually the students of a particular class. Moreover, such communities typically have a starting point and an end point; when the class is over in June, the community, after a life of 8 months, is disbanded. Further, such communities are artificially contrived, grouping together a set of members that have no more in common than their age or their enrollment in a given class. Any measurement of a community in such a setting is bound to be a failure because the constraints of the traditional classroom -- required in order to conduct a single-variable study -- have doomed the community to failure, a failure that can be predicted from research outside the domain of education." from Public Policy, Research and Online Learning by Stephen Downes (2003)

In a blog entry "obstacles to collaborative learning" Martin Terre Blanche (2003) lists indadequate 'course memory' as one of the obstacles and describes it as follows:

"Lecturers often are the only bridge for this year's students to the knowledge created by last year's group - students don't get to see what last year's group did. There is no mechanism for students who want to stay in the group after the course is officially over (and who could be a useful resource for next year's students) to do so."

In a similar vein Kreijns, Kirschner and Jochems (2003) [reference Kreijns, K., Kirschner, P.A. & Jochems, W. (2003). Identifying the pitfalls for social interaction in computer-supported collaborative learning environments: a review of the research, Computers in Human Behavior, 19(3), 335-353] point out that learning depends on "processes that have to do with getting to know each other, committing to social relationships, developing trust and belonging, and building a sense of on-line community. These processes are not directly related to the task in the strict sense. If group members are initially not acquainted with each other and the group has zero-history (which is often the case in distance education institutions), group forming, developing a group structure, and group dynamics are essential to developing a learning community."

Creating the conditions for collaborative learning

  • focus on real-world tasks
  • structure tasks so as to emphasize interdependence (e.g. make it necessart to use diverse skills in the group)
  • make members individually accountable to the group rather than to a third party
  • model collaboration skills
  • create mechanisms for social as well as task-oriented interaction
  • create mechanisms for the development of a sense of group history
  • function as a co-worker and facilitator rather than as an instructor
  • create mechanisms for linking the group's work to the work of other individuals and groups - also groups outside formal educational circles

Phases in the development of a working group

Bruffee [see the section on Classic Texts] (1999) says there are two major phases when a working group is formed - the dependence phase and the interdependence phase. The dependence phase is starts with a crisis of authority when the recognised external authority withdraws and the group is left to its own devices. The interdependence phase starts when peers have to start exercising authority with regard to one another, e.g. peer evaluation in collaborative learning.


One of the problems of learning and working in a group context is the "echo chamber" effect - people forming limited, insular understandings because everybody in the group believes and keeps repeating the same things. Sébastien Paquet says this about such processes in relation to weblogs:

"Weblogs enable groupthink circles to form. This is only natural and mirrors any real-world social aggregation process. The nice thing about this is that it does not spoil the fun for those who seek intellectual diversity. As a reader, you get to choose your neighborhood on a fine-grained, per-person basis - and this is unlike any other social situation I've seen. You can make that neighborhood as diverse as you want. So you're not stuck with echo effects unless you want them.

This is perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of weblogging from a "knowledge input management" point of view. Developing skill at selecting sources, in order to make the best use of one's limited perceptual bandwidth, is quickly becoming critical for making sense of what's really happening in our complex world. Two keywords for building a good neighborhood are diversity and quality. The corresponding skills one has to cultivate are open-mindedness and critical thinking."
In Communities and echo chambers makes a similar point: "the goal is to bridge many communities and try to expand one's notion of community the largest possible size... One way to increase the size of the community one identifies with is to participate in multiple communities or to include members from others communities." He also points out how blogs tend to collapse three different sorts of groups that people belong to:
"Big power-law shaped groupings, which are political, medium sized groupings which are social, and smaller groups which are strong-tie/family/close-friend groups...The behavior at each of these levels is quite different and it is when we collapse the context that we get in trouble. Comments made between intimate friends are different from the comments that are suitable for a discussion at a cocktail party. Comments made at a cocktail party are often not suitable for a public speech. One of the problems we have on blogs is that all three of these contexts are often collapsed into one blog."


Collaborative learning environments sourcebook

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