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

 

 

the leader cast a long shadow

 (Source of image: http://impressive.net/people/gerald/blog/2008/11/14/wandering-around-erg-chebbi/)

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.

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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

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and some lashing rain

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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 🙂

P1010367

 

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

The Hazards of Groups and Group Work

Last week I came across this fun video, which caused me to reflect once again on the potential problems of groups and group work, both on and offline.

For me it’s interesting that the intention of this video is to promote group work and group behaviours in a fun and humorous way, but it also, for me, suggests at least three problems with group work.

First I noted that all members of the group look very much alike, almost like clones of each other. Diversity is in short supply.

Then group members have a tendency to all act in unison and to be defensive. There is the assumption, by group members, that if you are not in the group, then you are either in danger of getting lost (a somewhat patronizing assumption) or subject to the malevolence of a predator. In the light of this assumption, a common action of groups is to close ranks.  All this of course, leads very easily to group think, which in turn constrains autonomy.

It’s not that there isn’t a place for groups and group work – simply that groups need to be very self-aware of these common behaviours, pros and cons.

I often return to Stephen Downes’ post on Groups vs Networks: The Class Struggle Continues and this diagram that he drew.

Screen Shot 2014-04-28 at 11.26.20

In the last year or so, I have seen more and more open online courses introduce group work or collaborative projects, or promote learning in spaces that encourage group formation, which is a departure from the initial intention of massive open online courses to promote networking.

Is it time to remind ourselves of the potential hazards of groups and group work and consider carefully what is to be gained and what is to be lost by becoming a member of a group or embarking on group work, or by asking our students to engage in group work?

The Messiness of Rhizomatic Learning – Words Steal My Intent

rhizo Screen_Shot_2013-09-17_at_8.51.41_PM

Week 2 of Dave Cormier’s open online course – Rhizomatic Learning – the community is the curriculum –  is at end, and what a messy week it has been.

Helen Crump has called it chaotic. I, and I’m sure others, can recognise this sentiment – but for me it has been ‘messy’ rather than ‘chaotic’. ‘Chaotic’ implies ‘out of control’ which I don’t think it has been – but, judging from blog posts and Facebook activity, the focus for many this week has not been on the suggested topic – ‘Enforcing Independence’  –  but on perceived divisions within the community. For me, this is what has made it feel so ‘messy’.

These perceived divisions relate to academics vs non-academics and theorists vs pragmatists and discussion around this was sparked off by a Facebook comment made by Maddie which I have quoted below.

I find it ironic that people talk about their qualifications and researches and their ability to read and understand critical theory when that is not the aim of this uncourse at all. As long as everyone “gets” the generic meaning of it, all is well and we progress as a community. How everyone reaches to the end is immaterial. If you get the theory without reading it, you have cheated brilliantly.

Furthermore, I would like to assert my independence and state that I am not an academic and yet wish to be part of this uncourse. Does that make me “Un-qualified” to take it up? If we are to question the very foundation of the education system and try to change it so as to include one and all in a whole big community, then it shouldn’t matter whether I am a phd or a college drop out, should it? This is how a rhizome breaks.

This comment was a response to a post made by Cath Ellis who encouraged us to engage with the theory behind rhizomatic learning, principally the work of Deleuze and Guattari in their book – A Thousand Plateaus . Intense discussion ensued (83 comments on Maddie’s Facebook post the last time I looked) and to my great surprise the academics/theorists appeared to ‘back off’, with many apologies for not being appropriately inclusive in the tone of their discussion.

In relation to this there have been a number of comments related to ‘community’.

Jaap Bosman questions whether participants of a MOOC are a group and therefore is there a need for group roles (e.g. Belbin’s team roles). He asks

‘If the participants of a mooc are (part of) rhizome, group roles are life functions of the rhizome? Does a healthy cMOOC need ‘group roles’?

Ary Aranguiz in her blog post – A Jagged little pill  – writes

‘I think the most important skill we need for true community building, if we genuinely believe in creating thriving networks, is to not minimize, or dismiss what someone has to say.’

Terry Elliott writes that he ‘ain’t feeling it’  and that he doesn’t feel ‘invited’. ‘What do the adjectives ‘rhizomatic’ and ‘deep’ add to the abstract noun ‘learning’.  What distinguishes those pairs of words from my run-of-the-mill word, just ‘learning’  he asks.

Sandra Sinfield  in her blog post writes that MOOCs have ‘reinforced the need to bring the human back into the physical classroom’. And

Lots of wrestling in FB this week with what could be argued to be an essential ‘issue’ with MOOCs – they are open – free – out there… surely this is thus egalitarian learning at its very best? But no – some are still silenced – some are still feeling the pain of not being good enough – that ‘fish out of water’ feeling that is the experience of so many non-traditional students in the traditional classroom.

We have some strategies that work here to overcome this: say hello – be welcoming – comment – reply – extend a welcoming hand to other students. In doing this we ARE the community, all of us, everyone who does this friendly human thing in this strange and potentially impersonal world.

Interestingly I spent some time yesterday listening to Manuel DeLanda’s Introduction to Gilles Deleuze  in which he discusses Deleuze’s ‘Theory of non-human expressivity’. Deleuze warned against living only in the small provincial world of humanity, closing ourselves into ourselves and being ‘all too human’. He recommended that we ‘break from our human straight-jackets’. I am still trying to understand what all this means, but I think it does relate to a discussion about communities and networks.

In my reflections on this week’s messiness and the possible causes for it – not that messiness per se is a bad thing in the learning process – I have wondered whether it not so much ‘learning’ that we need to do in relation to this course, but ‘unlearning’. (I was interested in this post about unlearning that I came across yesterday – not related to this course ).

I have been wondering whether we need to unlearn our assumptions about communities and groups in relation to rhizomatic learning. Despite the fact that the course title is Rhizomatic Learning – the Community is the Curriculum – can we assume that rhizomatic learning equates to community and/or group learning? For me ‘network’ or something similar might work better.  The advantages and disadvantages of groups and networks have been very well covered in the work of Stephen Downes. See this post  Groups Vs Networks: The Class Struggle Continues.

The differences between communities and networks has also been discussed by Wenger et al. in their publication – Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: a conceptual framework – in which they write (p.9):

We prefer to think of community and network as two aspects of social structures in which learning takes place.

The network aspect refers to the set of relationships, personal interactions, and connections among participants who have personal reasons to connect. It is viewed as a set of nodes and links with affordances for learning, such as information flows, helpful linkages, joint problem solving, and knowledge creation.

The community aspect refers to the development of a shared identity around a topic or set of challenges. It represents a collective intention—however tacit and distributed—to steward a domain of knowledge and to sustain learning about it.

In addition, by chance Stephen Downes has posted in OLDaily (Jan 25th) a link   to a post about inappropriate conversation in MOOC discussion forums.  See the post Everything in Moderation  Carl Straumsheim, Inside Higher Ed, January 25, 2014, and Stephen Downes’ comment in OL Daily. We are fortunate in #rhizo14 that discussion has not descended to these levels – due, I am sure, in no small part to Dave’s modelling of appropriate behaviour – but Stephen Downes’ solution to this problem, which he has mentioned many times before, is to use distributed aggregated discussions, i.e. to dispense with discussion forums. By doing this within a network structure, participants can follow their own rhizomatic paths through a network, discussing whatever they wish with whoever they wish. If they stumble across a conversation that is not for them, they simply leave and follow another path. Eventually people with similar interests find each other. In a network, unlike a group or community, we don’t all have to know each other or have similar interests. There is no academic vs non-academic, theorist vs pragamatist. We simply occupy different spaces. There is diversity, autonomy, connectedness and openness – the basic pedagogical principles of a network.

To finish off this rather long post (there has been a lot to think about this week), Maddie, who sparked all this off, has come back and written  ….

Did I do it on purpose? No. Did I wish to make jabs at privileged people? No. Did I project such an outbreak? No.

I think perhaps her initial post wouldn’t have cause such a ‘stir’ had we all been working according to network rather than community/group principles, but her follow-up comments also raise the issue of the role of language in online communication.

There are some in this course who are really interested in the link between language and identity, for example Emily who writes in her blog post ‘Ode to marginalia

I guess, that all identity and learning is language, so it’s interesting and useful to know about language and bring theory in even when it’s opposed…

I think it’s also useful to be constantly aware of the possible consequences of language and writing. I think this example below, which I will end this post with, illustrates the point 🙂

Kevin invited us to ‘Steal his poem’ and remix it.

So I decided to create a mesostic from his poem, a form of remixing that I learned about in the Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC (ModPo) last year – and, using the spine REMIX in Kevin’s poem  as shown here:

Screen Shot 2014-01-26 at 14.52.06

blow me down – this is what I got (although the X has been dropped in the spine),

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Is this the cause of the messiness in Week 2 of  #rhizo14.

Constraints and Change in ChangeMooc

Thanks to Jon Dron for a fascinating week in Changemooc, which started with discussions about the need to balance hard and soft technologies in learning environments and ended with discussion and reflection on whether MOOCs need to integrate more constraints to allow for greater emergent learning, engagement and creativity.  Here is a link to the recordings of the live sessions.

The MOOC design philosophy is based on the principles of autonomy, diversity, openness and connectedness and on four types of activity – aggregate, remix, repurpose and feed forward. Participants self-select and typically large numbers sign up and very much smaller numbers remain active to the end of the course. What could be the reasons for this?

  • An imbalance between soft and hard technologies. Are MOOCs too open/too soft? According to Jon Dron, the ‘sweet spot’ in networks, sets and groups is the balance point between the hard and soft technologies where emergent things happen. Do some of the soft technologies in ChangeMooc need to be replaced with hard technologies?
  • The structure is not quite right. There is a structure in MOOCs – in Changemooc this is the Daily Newsletter, the weekly synchronous session, the schedule and so on. If ‘We shape our dwellings and our dwellings shape our lives’ as claimed by Winston Churchill, then structure shapes our behaviour. People cannot be creative in a vacuum. They need some structure to kick against. Does Changemooc need more structure and if so in what format? There needs to be a balance between the Red Queen Regime, where there is not enough structure, people are always running to stay in the same place, everything happens too fast, there is no creativity or emergence – and the Stalinist Regime where nothing changes because there is too much structure. The structure of the MOOC needs to be based on the behaviour of the people using it.
  • There is too much going on in Changemooc – so that it is hard for participants to see the shape of their own and others’ developing learning. This inhibits stigmergy which creates necessary constraints. Stigmergy is the signs left in the environment as a result of people’s activity just as ants leave a trail of pheromones when they’ve found food; this trail is followed by other ants and the trail gets stronger and influences how following ants behave. But whilst there is security and productivity in this kind of behaviour, there is also the risk of stupidity, blindly following the flow, rather than harnessing the wisdom of crowds.
  • There is too much choice, which can lead to paralysis rather than liberation, opportunity costs (imagining that other choices would have been better), escalation of expectation and self-blame when a wrong choice is made. (See Barry Swartz’ entertaining TED video – The Paradox of Choice – in the reference list below).
  • The MOOC is too large – which has the effect of slowing things down in the system and has more effect on the system as a whole than smaller faster aspects. The system is too spread out, too diverse and only works for a few people. Things evolve faster in smaller spaces where niches develop. Jon Dron referred us to the work of Stewart Brand.
  • There is too little choice – too little opportunity to move into smaller, safer groups and sets. Too much landscape of mountains and trees and not enough of shrubs, flowers and insects.

Possible solutions?

Jon Dron suggestions revolved around parcellation and tagging. The system (course) needs to be structured to allow smaller spaces to emerge according to participant need. Tagging could be one answer. Tags can separate out spaces, so for example a ‘good for beginners’ tagged space could emerge. There has been a little of this tagging ‘emerging’ in this Mooc – not in relation to participants, but in relation to invited speakers, some of whom have provide their own unique tags for the activities they have suggested. But as Jon Dron said, we then need bridges to connect those tagged spaces and this has not happened. Tags allow people to choose the spaces they interact with, reduce feelings of exposure and increase feelings of trust and safety. Tags are also a way of enabling the management of groups at scale.

Would tags and parcellation help to increase the level of engagement in Changemooc?

27-11-11 Postscript

Jon Dron’s final reflections help to answer the questions about engagement in MOOCs –  https://landing.athabascau.ca/pg/blog/read/91481/and-so-it-ends

Stephen Downes’ thoughts – http://halfanhour.blogspot.com/2011/11/right-mix.html

Alternative persepctives from Matthias Melcher – http://x28newblog.blog.uni-heidelberg.de/2011/11/27/change11-decreasing-engagement-in-moocs/

References

Judith Donath (2010) – Design for Privacy and Public Space Online – http://nmd.arkena.tv/012900007101810/design-for-privacy-and-public-space-online

http://smg.media.mit.edu/people/Judith/index.html

Stephen Downes (2011)  – Engagement and Motivation in Moocs – http://www.downes.ca/presentation/288

Jon Dron (2007) – Control and constraint in e-learning: choosing when to choose http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=QmTngzNe2mUC&pg=PT272&lpg=PT272&dq=stewart+brand+jon+dron&source=bl&ots=4cD6QaYyeC&sig=ZD15X6FsnwdZdWsSCt6L6raQG4Y&hl=en&ei=–LQTu6YK8S08QPSgvD3Dw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

Jon Dron (2009) Ten Design Principles – Slide 23 http://www.slideshare.net/jondron/replacing-teachers-with-crowds

Rafe Furst (2010) The Emergent Fool – http://emergentfool.com/2010/03/11/the-adjacent-possible/

Ursula Goodenough (2010) Emergence into the Adjacent Possible – http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2010/01/emergence_into_the_adjacent_po_2.html

Stewart Kauffman – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stuart_Kauffman

Barry Schwartz (2005) The Paradox of Choice – http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice.html

Group think

My online PGCert group (for which I am a facilitator)  is currently studying a module on the emotional intelligence of teams. Had I not worked on the connectivism course in 2008, I might not have even thought to question whether working in teams/groups is a good idea and also whether working in teams/groups leads to group think and stifles creativity.

As a result of CCK08 I have been able to play devil’s advocate with my teaching group and question these assumptions that they might carry with them into the workplace – i.e. that working in teams is  the way to go!

One thing I have learned from Stephen and George (and others such as Stephen Brookfield)  is that it’s worth surfacing  assumptions, even if it means challenging the assumptions of CCK08/09 – rightly or wrongly. Who’s to say?

Collaboration online

Many online courses now require students to collaborate, but we know that just putting people together in the same space isn’t enough? What should a tutor do to prepare students for collaborative tasks?

Gilly Salmon’s 5-stage model provides very good guidelines on how to prepare for collaborative tasks online. These are usually designed into Stage 4 of the model after it has been established that everyone has successfully accessed the learning environment (Stage 1), participants are socialising easily and the learning community norms have become apparent (Stage 2) and  information is being freely exchanged and a culture of open sharing exists (Stage 3).

Up to Stage 3 activities centre around helping participants to feel stimulated by and comfortable in the learning environment. Relationships are beginning to be established. Students who are not comfortable with each other and the learning environment will not be able to collaborate effectively, so it is worth spending time on the early stages of accessibility, socialisation and information exchange.

Tutors also need to decide whether the collaborative groups will be self-selected or whether students will be put into groups by the tutor. My personal view on this is that it depends on whether the collaborative group tasks are to be assessed and assessed for what, and whether it is a short course or a longer course. If the task is to be assessed, then if I was a student I would want to be in control of the outcome of that assessment as much as possible and therefore choose my own group. If it is the ability to work in a group that is being assessed then maybe random mixing of students is appropriate.

Nowadays I often work on online non-assessed short post-graduate professional development courses. In these courses there isn’t a lot of time for students to get to know each other, but as a tutor, having done quite a bit of ‘back channelling’ and being able to see the student log in statistics, its fairly easy to create groups made up of a mix of very active participants and lurkers – so that these student characteristics are evenly distributed across groups. Even then a tutor only knows what s/he has been told by the students, so there’s no way of knowing whether a very active student who you are relying on to get a collaborative group going, is, for example,  going to be on holiday or away from the course at the time of the collaborative task, unless that student tells you. So your carefully planned groups can still go awry.

Once the students have started the collaborative task, a tutor can do a lot to help them be successful by making the norms of online group collaboration explicit – so ask the students to inform each other about when they will/will not be online, when they will/will not be able to work on the task, what roles they would each like to volunteer for and so on. Encourage them not to be ‘backward in coming forward’ and not to be shy of taking the lead.

Having worked on online collaborative tasks myself as a student in the past, I know what powerful experiences these can be. It’s surprising how well you get to know each other in these circumstances, even though you are only meeting online and have never met each other face-to-face  – but often these collaborative activities do lead to long-term working relationships.

But I also know from personal experience that group work can be a ‘nightmare’. On my face-to-face Masters degree we had to do a group presentation and I remember having to argue for an educational philosophy to which I was  opposed simply because I was the only person in the group to hold the opposite view (this was about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation and the use of rewards) – and everyone else wanted to do a presentation on something I didn’t believe in – so groups do require a lot of compromise.

This raises an interesting question for tutors about whether you would allow a student to opt out of a groupwork assignment and do an individual assignment instead, if they could make a sufficiently persuasive case, or should we insist that all students engage in collaborative group work.

I once heard Stephen Downes – at the 2005 ALT conference, describe collaboration as – “the joining up of things that do not naturally want to be joined up”, which challenges the whole notion of collaborative learning. But then David Jacques and Gilly Salmon’s have published a quite substantial text on Learning in Groups: A Handbook for face-to-face and online environments which really promotes groupwork.

So is it possible to collaborate online – Yes, of course and very definitely. Can tutors prepare students for this – Yes, of course – good teaching doesn’t change just because it’s online. Obviously there are things that you can do face-to-face (like a science field trip to study rock pools on a Northumberland beach) that would not be possible to capture in exactly the same way online, but an awful lot of what we do face-t0-face can now be done online.

The question is not whether we can get students to collaborate online – the question is whether we should. Are we asking them to do something that is worthwhile and that will enhance their learning.  Are we offereing them opportunities that they would otherwise not have? What is it that students can get from collaborative learning that they can’t get from individual learning? What specific challenges does online collaboration bring?

I don’t think there are necessarily any right or wrong answers here. If you want students to collaborate online, then there are tried and tested ways of making this a successful learning experience, but if you don’t then there will be equally effective alternatives that might suit the situation, context and culture better.