The leader casts a long shadow – further reflections on group work



the leader cast a long shadow

 (Source of image:

Reflection on my West Highland Way walk and my recent experience of a cMOOC (Rhizo14), have made me reflect deeply on the formation and functioning of groups and the dynamics that emerge.

In my cMOOC experience there has usually been an unwritten, if not explicit, expectation of a code of behaviour that respects alternative perspectives. By code of behaviour, I mean some ground rules so that people know how to critically engage with these alternative perspectives on an academic level, without resorting to personal attacks or causing unnecessary offence. Occasionally this unwritten code breaks down. It did in Rhizo14 and it also did in the first MOOC in 2008, CCK08, where a ‘troll’ caused havoc in the forums by making a string of personal attacks on people with alternative perspectives.

In a research paper that I and my colleagues published following CCK08, we felt, at the time, that openness doesn’t mean a ‘free for all’. There are circumstances in which participants need to remember (or be reminded of) the ground rules (constraints) in order to limit behaviour that could be seen as offensive.

But whose responsibility is it to apply these ground rules (if they exist) or set the expectations? Ideally, in an adult group, this responsibility would shared and distributed. But my recent experiences seem to show that this won’t happen without a leader.

For the West Highland Way walk, we had an appointed leader – an extremely likeable man, with many years experience of walking and climbing all over the world – and of leading walking groups – but groups of children, not adults. He told us that this was his first experience of leading adults (which was immediately perceived as a weakness by some members of the group). There was no discussion of expectations or group ground rules. In the event everyone did their own thing, which created tensions in the group and left the weakest member insufficiently supported.

For me I would have like to have more photos like this where the group is together:

The Ideal

but in reality the bleak scene depicted in the photo below of the weakest member of the group getting left behind, was more common. (You can scarcely see the yellow anorak, he is so far behind).

The Reality

This group dynamic scenario that I experienced on the West Highland Way, can equally occur in open learning environments, such as cMOOCs, which encourage people to follow their own paths of enquiry. But – however learner-centred these courses are intended to be, there is still a MOOC convener. It has been someone’s idea to plan and deliver the MOOC. In most MOOCs I have participated in (14 MOOCs of different types) it is clear who the leader is and it is interesting to observe the different leadership styles, such as charismatic, distributed, servant, democratic and so on. In most cases if the expectations for ways of working are made clear at the start (as in Change MOOC), even if those expectations are negotiated, then the MOOC or course is likely to run more smoothly in terms of social interaction. In those cases where expectations are neither made clear nor negotiated, then confusion abounds and inappropriate behaviours can emerge.

I think Carmen Tschofen sums it up nicely in her comment on my last post about the West  Highland Way walk, where she writes:

It all makes me wonder if this trip was difficult in two ways: in part because there were so many emerging needs and situations for which people were psychologically and physically unprepared… and in part because it was so structured (a single path within given time constraints) that it didn’t have the flexibility to accommodate such a wide range of needs and abilities and expectations…

So… all of this is to say: it seems like we can substitute “MOOC” or any other environment where structure and emergence are crossing paths, and we keep winding up with new angles… on some pretty familiar questions and situations.


An Alternative Perspective on Group Dynamics

In my last post I discussed the hazards of group work and group think. Ironically, in an experience I had last week, I really wished for more group work. Not group think, but group commitment and group responsibility.

On Monday I returned home after 9 nights away and 8 days walking the West Highland Way.

west highland map

This 96 mile walk takes you through some of Scotland’s most spectacular scenery, the culmination being a view of Ben Nevis on the final day – and ‘No’, despite encouragement from friends I did not stay an extra day to climb it. 96 miles was sufficient achievement for me.


The path along the West Highland Way was for the most part rough under foot. Not easy walking. We had a few steep climbs and descents


and some lashing rain


But for me, despite the fact that I am not the world’s strongest walker, the walking was not the most difficult aspect of this experience. The most difficult aspect, which had me ‘biting my tongue’ on most days was the group dynamics. If ever there was a situation for a group to work together, this was it, but it did not happen.

I think the age range in our group of 12 walkers was somewhere between 55 and 76. The youngest were not necessarily the strongest, but the oldest was definitely the weakest. In his own words, he wanted one final challenge in his life and realised that he had probably bitten off more than he could chew. He was slower than the rest of the group and very much slower than some.

This brought out the worst possible behaviour in some members of the group, who resented being slowed down, particularly if it was lashing with rain, and declared that they simply could not wait because this meant that they would get cold. So they strode on ahead at the rate of knots with not a care for the slower members of the group.

There were also many other complaints from the same members of the group. The accommodation was not good enough, the beds creaked and were not comfortable enough, the packed lunch sandwiches were not what they wanted, the bread was white instead of brown, there were apples instead of bananas, the food at dinner was either served too fast or too slow, the leader was basically too nice, flexible and accommodating and so it went on.

What did I learn from this? I learned that diversity in groups is essential. It makes for a very interesting and rich learning experience, but that ultimately there are situations in which, for survival, groups must pull together. Individuals must subjugate their own desires and needs and compromise for the benefit of the group and for the benefit of all group members. In our group we had an elderly man who was having a last bash at a long distance walking challenge. In my mind a well functioning group would have found ways to support this, without complaining, rejection and intolerance. The diversity of the group was still important. Each person was unique, but how could it ever be right to not support the weakest member of the group?

I don’t think this equates to group think.

I learned a lot on this walk – principally that tolerance, flexibility, caring and humour remain important values for me. There were some lovely people in our walking group who shared these values, but also some who didn’t seem to understand that in a situation such as walking the West Highland Way, commitment to the group was important.

And finally to prove that I did it 🙂



For more photos and information about walking the West Highland Way here is a set of photos