Remote Courses and Group Conflict Possibilities

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While working in groups, students in remote courses are likely to experience similar challenges to those they may face in face-to-face courses: scheduling meetings suiting everyone, relying on others, unequal group contributions, group members lacking skills, and conflict among group members (Soon, 2011).  

Conflict is a normal—and even productive—part of group work (Tuckman, 1965). However, it is the necessary responsibility of faculty to support students as they engage in group-based learning, and especially in the context of remote learning.

Drawing from recent literature on reducing conflict in group-based learning in remote courses, this teaching tip provides practical suggestions for faculty: clarifying expectations early, building group work skills throughout, and using a progressive intervention approach. Click each section below for more information.

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Photo by Parker Gibbons on Unsplash

Understanding Why Conflict Happens in Remote Learning

Conflict may be even more likely to arise in remote group-based learning (Carter et al., 2018) because  

  • Students may have to adjust to a new way of collaborating, and may be unfamiliar with remote group dynamics and how to balance their presence online;  
  • Students have more autonomy and control over what they respond to or comment on;  
  • Text-based communication does not include extra-linguistic cues;  
  • Students may feel disinhibited in expressing negative thoughts or feelings as a result of lack of face-to-face contact;  
  • Some topics or activities (e.g., self-reflection) may be more likely to lead to contrasting opinions, misunderstandings, and conflict; and  
  • Distance can promote distrust, yet trust must be built to create conditions that make it easier to collaborate remotely (Smith, 2011).  

Researchers investigating online and remote group-based learning (see References below) suggest that planning and support from faculty at every stage in the group work process can help mitigate misunderstandings that can lead to conflict, as well as manage conflict more effectively as it arises.

Mitigate Conflict Early by Clarifying Expectations

To mitigate conflict, faculty can clarify expectations early, right when group work is first assigned. This can include:  

  1. Creating carefully designed assignments that
    • can be broken down into checkpoints, with material submitted for formative feedback and /or part marks for coaching the work in progress,
    • require students to collect evidence of contribution via drafts, screenshots, emails kept, etc., and
    • include individual and/or peer evaluation to reduce the social loafer/free rider effect;
  2. Describing clearly the purpose, tasks, timelines, and expectations of group assignments;   
  3. Encouraging students to set group expectations early (regarding the type of leadership, response times, online discussion norms, meeting notes), and revisit those expectations continuously throughout the assignment;  
  4. Asking students to choose prescribed roles in their groups based on their relative strengths;  
  5. Facilitating activities for groups to build trust, cohesion, and social connectedness in class.  
  6. Explaining that Student Success Services offers many types of supports when students are struggling with remote course work.  

Minimize Conflict by Building Group Work Skills

Faculty can help students to build and practice group work skills throughout the assignment timeline to minimize conflict as groups work together. This can include  

  1. Inviting group members to share times and tools that most benefit their learning;  
  2. Leading a class discussion on past experiences with trust in groups;  
  3. Encouraging group process discussions (how the group is functioning) in addition to their “product”;  
  4. Giving examples of ways to show respect and goodwill (remaining sensitive to the feelings of others) when group members disagree;   
  5. Showing students how to use/where to find technology for learning and collaboration. 

Manage Conflict with Progressive Intervention

To manage conflict in groups in a way that shows supportive presence but use active intervention only when needed, faculty can  

  1. Use regular progress updates to monitor escalating conflict;
  2. Give students a protocol to explore processes and fears so they may attempt to resolve their own problems first:  
    • Review the group expectations they set together, 
    • Remind students of their choice of language as well as the importance of asking for clarification to avoid misunderstandings, and 
    • Encourage students to meet synchronously, not to use email or written messages to discuss conflict;  
  3. Encourage students to listen to honour each other’s their feelings, but to focus on mutually agreeable, solution-based outcomes; 
  4. Monitor and be prepared to step in at any time to mediate serious conflicts;  
  5. Remain patient, empathetic, and professional with every student no matter what;  
  6. Make rational conflict-resolution decisions (such as allowing group members to switch groups, changing the assignment, becoming over-involved) as a last resort.  

Supporting International Students in Group Work

Students from different backgrounds have different expectations and experiences with group work. To support international students from East Asian countries, faculty are reminded that  

  1. Group composition may affect a number of dynamics that go on within student groups, and those dynamics may be culture and/or gender-based;  
  2. Students may be asked to be mindful of biases that can emerge when group members are diverse by culture, gender, and other differences;   
  3. Cultural norms may discourage support seeking in students;  
  4. Frequent and positive feedback will benefit students’ ability to manage emotions;  
  5. Simple behaviours (like procrastination) may be indicating defensiveness or uncertainty about expectations rather than laziness.  

References

Carter, I., Damianakis, T., Munro, S., Skinner, H., Matin, S., & Nash Andrews, T. (2018). Exploring online and blended course delivery in social group work. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 38(5), 486–503. https://doi.org/10.1080/08841233.2018.1523824 

Kaenzig, R., Anderson, S., Hyatt, E., & Griffin, L. (2006). Gender differences in students’ perceptions of group learning experiences. Academy of Educational Leadership Journal 10, (1): 119-127. Accessed April 10, 2020.  

Smith, R. (2011). Trust in online collaborative groups: a constructivist psychodynamic view. Adult Learning, 22(2), 19–23. https://doi.org/10.1177/104515951102200203 

Soon, L. (2011). E-learning and M-learning: Challenges and barriers in distance education group assignment collaboration. International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning, 3(3), Gale Academic OneFile. Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.  

Tuckman, B.W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63 (6): 384–399. doi:10.1037/h0022100.   

Xu, J., Du, J., & Fan, X. (2014). Emotion management in online groupwork reported by Chinese students. Educational Technology Research and Development, 62(6), 795–819.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s11423-014-9359-0 

Zhu, H., Sheng, Y., Zhou, X., & Zhu, Y. (2018). Group role assignment with cooperation and conflict Factors. IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics: Systems, 48(6), 851–863. https://doi.org/10.1109/TSMC.2016.2633244 

Elan Paulson

Elan Paulson, PhD, has been an educator in Ontario's higher education system since 2004. Before joining Conestoga as a Teaching and Learning Consultant, Elan was on the executive team at eCampusOntario. She previously served as Program Director and as an instructor in professional education programs at Western University's Faculty of Education. With a Master's in Educational Technology, Elan specializes in technology-enabled and collaborative learning to support diverse learners. She has also conducted research on faculty participation in communities of practice for professional learning and self-care.

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