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Group dynamics and learning in an Organisation Behaviour virtual learning community: the case of six virtual peer-learning teams.

Author:C.M.Dubey-Assistantprofessor,IPSR,Unnao Dr.Manish Singh-AIET,Allahabad Keywords: Higher Education, teaching and learning, virtual learning, Bachelor of Commerce
Abstract Introduction Group maturity and learning The nature of group learning Communication as sign of maturity Teacher as anxiety container Background to the study Research approach Case study data and initial analysis Cross case thematic analysis Conclusion References

Abstract This paper explores the impact of non-defensive group dynamics, as a precondition for experiential group learning, in the group space of an online Organisation Behaviour class as virtual learning organisation in RMITs strategic flagship Bachelor of Commerce. It comprises detailed analysis of archives of the interactions,

via threaded discussion and virtual chat, of six self-directed virtual peer learning teams acting as case studies. Findings suggest that anxiety, particularly about the reflective part of Kolbs experiential cycle, can lead to defensive behaviours and shallow or single loop learning. This is despite the part the teacher, as designer and online facilitator, can play in anxiety containment. Those groups mature enough however, to remain more motivated than anxious about reflection on process issues, can learn deeply. Here the teacher and the skills in virtual group organisation and communication, provided by students with management experience, can assist groups to develop as effective teams. Introduction Computer mediated communication has provided a new type of group space for social interaction between and within groups. The quality of this interaction is of general interest to educationalists, but especially for those for whom the conversation is between groups learning collaboratively. For social constructivists it is in this new virtual group space that cognitive development can occur as a result of group interactions leading to increasingly sophisticated conceptual understandings. Individual learning is thus supported by the nature of the social behaviours and processes operating in group space: it is these that have been the subject of recent pedagogical evaluations (Stacey & Rice, 2002, McLoughlin, 2002, Treleaven, 2002, Andrews & Schwarz, 2002). Staceys research (1998), demonstrating the link between cognitive and socioaffective communication, is based upon the founding work of Harasim, for whom group interaction is a critical variable in learning and cognitive development (1990 p.43 in Stacey, 1998, p.77): in particular the socio-emotional variables of group interaction, including motivation, satisfaction and anxiety reduction that are important in effective learning (Stacey, 1998, p. 77). Tyson (1989) differentiates between group dynamics and processes: group dynamics consist of the energy shifts fuelled by the underlying forces of motivation and anxiety, ( p.47) whereas group processes are made up of a groups comings and goings and the sequence of its activities and interactions. The focus of this paper, following Creeses (2001) study of group dynamics in the potential space (Winnicott, 1973) of a TAFE class, is on the impact of group dynamics, that is the interplay between motivation and anxiety, in an online Organisation Behaviour course. The course is based on Tysons (1999) experiential classroom as learning organisation model (CALO), where student managers in self-directed virtual peer learning teams (VPLTs) learn through reflection on practice (Schon, 1983). The group interactions themselves are the subject of study and responsiveness to them is an indicator of group learning and development (Agryis & Schon, 1978). In the context of this study group dynamics are thus seen more than a critical variable or as having an effect that cannot be ignored (Stacey, 1998, p.40). Rather non-defensive group dynamics are seen as a precondition for the group being able to learn.

The psychodynamic and systems understanding of, and teaching about group learning is now outlined. Group maturity and learning The concept of emotional ability for groups to learn is derived from Kleins (1959) notion of an individuals psychological maturity. For Bion (1961) work groups are those mature enough to be able to learn standing in contrast to groups operating defensively in response to anxiety (Menzies, 1970). Bion highlights three modes of defensive or group basic assumption to be looked after by a leader, to flee or fight others, or to be rescued by a pairing. These are named Basic Dependency, Fight/Flight and Pairing. Turquet (1974) adds a fourth, Basic Assumption Oneness. The nature of group learning A mature or learning (Senge,1991) group can respond creatively to its environment, technologically supported or otherwise. Shallow and deep (Biggs, 1999) approaches to learning are comparable with Argyis and Schons (1974, 1978) notion of single and double loop learning. Single loop learning is when a group operates within existing norms without examining them in depth. Group dynamics here include quasi resolution of conflict, intragroup rivalry, conformity, avoidance of uncertainty, parochial interests and miscommunication (Tyson, 1989 p.158). Conversely, double loop learning occurs when the norms themselves are scrutinised and reworked. Members invite each other to confront their views and to alter them in order to produce a position that is based on the most valid information possible, to which people involved can become internally committed (Tyson, 1989, p.158). For the Tavistock School of group relations, it is processing of the here and now so that assumptions may be uncovered, and hypotheses, made about the sometimes unconscious drives beneath. Kolbs (1984) individual experiential learning cycle, based on Lewins work with group dynamics in the 1940s, is the conceptual framework used to understand how groups can learn deeply. The VPLT provides the concrete experience for reflective observation: in this, it is the giving and receiving of feedback about the here and now group process issues such as exercise of leadership, conflict resolution, problem solving interpersonal relations and online communication to which group members are most likely to respond defensively. If virtual groups can contain their anxiety about reflection on experience, abstract conceptualisation, followed by active experimentation is then possible. Cognitive ability, rather than emotional maturity, seems helpful for conceptualisation, as does management skill for the final action or improvement phase. Communication as sign of maturity Linguistic analyses such as that by Treleaven (2003) of bulletin board postings demonstrate that the quality of the communication in group space is seen as critical in understanding the nature of collaborative learning processes. McLouglin (2002) and Andrews & Schwarz (2002) both note a process/ learning outcome connection,

recording qualitative and quantitative differences in the bulletin board postings by high and low performing teams. Interpersonal communication is also seen as central to interpreting group dynamics from a psychodynamic perspective. Schlachet (1986) describes group or potential space also as a psychic envelope in which defensive miscommunication or a healthy form of understanding can be demonstrated. Creese (1997) sees mutual trust and respect, shared values and goals, genuine feedback and communication as a sign of a teams learning capability. Teacher as anxiety container The importance of the role of online moderator (Salmon, 2000) and designer (McLouglin, 2002) and of teacher presence (Stacey & Rice, 2002) is noted in terms of the social and cognitive behaviours of online groups. Creese (2001) describes the online teacher as m/other who maintains the boundary of potential space and attempts to contain anxiety through the multifaceted roles of designer, administrator, facilitator and modeller of learning behaviours. Within the CALO model, whether face-to-face or virtual, self managed groups however interact in the presence of the teacher with only intermittent direct interventions. The power of a groups dynamics, made up of individual group members personalities, levels of emotional maturity, abilities, skills and resource are not always containable. Background to the study The broad aim of the study is to improve student learning in Organisation Behaviour in the context of RMIT Universitys (2000) policy of flexible renewal and its strategic flagship, the Bachelor of Commerce (BComm). The introduction of the experiential CALO model is integral to the redesign of the course for online delivery. The BComm is a program at faculty level, with Organisation Behaviour a first year core unit provided by the School of Management. The BComm is designed for overseas markets and commenced in Vietnam in 2002, with a trial emanating from RMITs Bundoora campus, in Semester 2, 2001. The student body for the ongoing BComm, Bundoora, from which the case studies are taken, is largely drawn from metropolitan Melbourne, with some students from regional Victoria. Although the Vietnam course was always to be mixed mode with face-to-face facilitators, Bundoora has evolved into a fully online course. Consequently group formation has moved from self-selection at face-to-face orientations, to random online selection by the teacher. The selection of case studies is on the basis of groups that communicated only electronically. The course comprises online lectures set up in the Blackboard interface to RMITs Distributed Learning System. The other resources relate to the two major learning activities, an individual learning contract and the VPLT.

Communication occurs at the organisation level via the course communication devices (threaded discussion, virtual chat, file exchange and email) with each VPLT having their own set of devices in Group Pages.

Research approach A practical form of action research (Kemmis & McTaggart, 1988) enables cycles of planning, acting and reviewing, the first three of which are covered in this paper. The focus on group dynamics resulted from an illuminative evaluation (Creese, 2001) of cycle 1, that identified a gap between the recognition cognitively and the maturity emotionally to reflect on group process. The following revisions were made in an attempt to address group anxiety about reflection: Cycle 2: refining of weekly group activities to suit fully online mode removal of individual learning journal/integration of weekly group review and individual and group reflection questions introduction of a weekly process consultancy report introduction of formative feedback on group folios Cycle 3: connections between phases of Kolb and parts of VPLT and assessment criteria made more explicit in online instructions and feedback These revisions were made in response to the continuous collection of qualitative data in collaboration with students or the critical reference group (Wadsworth, 2000). Reflection on this data, nominated below as little r and big R research cycles led to theory grounded in the authors practice as teacher. Data collection methods Data was collected as part of the following cycles: small r: interacting with students via course and group communication devices formative and summative feedback on VPLT folios big R: follow up interviews with VPLTs and individuals retention of VPLT folios for detailed analysis of electronic archives Data analysis The initial analysis of case data was based upon repeated reading to identify dynamics suggestive of single or double loop learning. Subsequent cross case analysis was based on emerging themes.

Case study data and initial analysis Of the six studies, because of space, three, one from each cycle, are covered in detail: the remaining three, one from cycle 1 and two from cycle 3 are summarised here and included in the later discussion. The following code has been adopted to distinguish the various types of data source. Virtual chat: date, time and message indented Threaded discussion: date and message indented Follow up interviews: quotations in inverted commas Messages are reproduced as they were typed, including spelling mistakes. Cycle 1: Blue Group The Blue Group were predominantly made up of mothers in their thirties who worked in a variety of businesses and wanted to upgrade their qualifications. George from regional Victoria was a late addition to the group. The dramatic dynamics experienced by this group were foreshadowed in the first chat, to which the teacher was invited. Stellas dogmatic attitude pervades discussion about the team task insisting July 16 09:31:08 no, our task is to produce a profile of team members. The teachers subsequent reminder that the task involves the study of team operation is ignored. Milly, the Chair suggests at the beginning of the next meeting that team members Jul 23 09:22:08 evaluate each team member and how they are perceived within the team, look at the threaded discussion board and respond as you see it. Stella immediately deflects the group from this. She first suggests adjourning the meeting because of the virtual medium. When the Chair repeats the suggestion Stella challenges whether feedback on others is required Jul 23 09:40:13 I didnt think that we are supposed to assess other members of the team only ourselfs (sic). Nothing eventuates on the discussion board. By the next meeting Stella moves quickly to counter Millys every word with the result that Milly says Aug 9 08:52:38 Slow down Im the chairman. Stella beings to draw on the virtual group white board then types into the chat Aug 9 08:56:19 yes its good fun when you are bored, you can doodle.

When eventually we need a new chairman appears on the whiteboard Milly explodes.

Aug 9 09:06:16 one of the norms of the team was that the chairman would control it and ask questions,BUT YOU DONT GIVE ME A CHANCE.

Milly leaves before the end of the meeting. Stella denies that her challenge is a coup as other group members describe it later on in the meeting. The challenge results in the group taking up Stellas suggestion of rotating roles. The group also colludes with Stellas refusal to address issues of reflection on self agreeing as follows in the next meeting

Aug 16 08:24:02 no personal comments 08:24:07 no judgements 08:24:16 no negative apologies.

The teacher is asked to the next meeting and attempts to get the group to reflect on what has happened. Stella initially uses the medium as an excuse for

Aug 23 08:31:10 stifling dynamics

and later admits

Aug 23 09:04:23 It has made me very wary of people who will make personal comments about me in a public forum especially when I think they are not correct. I do not feel safe, I feel vulnerable and I dont enjoy that.

The teacher discusses this with her the next day on the phone for over two hours. However the teacher interventions of Aug 23 do not affect the dynamics of the group established on

Aug 16. The last seven meetings from Aug 30 to Sep 27 are made up entirely of unrelated chatter. The group has regressed as George described in his post on

15 Sep (to) being too nice on the discussion board (where) everyone agrees. George had previously attempted to follow up the suggestions made by the teacher on Aug 23 urging the group the next day to

Aug 24 step back a bit sometimes, before taking the next step forward. But as George complains on the discussion board on 8 Sep no one responds. The discussion board rather is used to give feedback on the profiles, which Stacey

insists comprise only of positive things about members, and are later included in the folio.

Soft Pack Consultancy (SFC)

The dynamics here are characterised by Adrians apparent use of reflective language to devalue Daniel in the groups eyes. When Daniel leaves the course, SPCs meetings are reduced to idle chat, the imaginary virtual company which Adrian suggests never eventuates, and an incomplete handwritten folio, minus reflection, results.

Cycle 2: Yay team This was a group initially of five members. Interactions between Clarissa, Cliff and Richard seem significant in this groups development. It was because of Richard that the group was able to understand the nature of their task. In the first meeting Richard says Mar 3 07:30:43 My impression from reading some of the group discussion stuff is that the group exercises make up the content and then we are supposed to reflect on what is happening in the group and how we feel about it. Richard is also to advise the team about the relationship to Kolbs learning. However at the second meeting to which the teacher had been invited to attend he says Mar 10 07:25:04 it seems an easy concept but our own self confidence or lack of can hinder this process. Later on when the teacher has left the meeting, Richard confides that he does not feel comfortable Mar 10 08:43:04 sharing my innermost thoughts (a minute later described as innermost demons) with others. Richard is not present for the next meeting and the group does not discuss his departure. However Clarissa pushes the need for reflection on the discussion board.

May 21 I know I have been harping on about CONFLICT of late but find Lizs point that our team seems to avoid conflict quite interesting. Clarissa follows this with a sophisticated analysis of the reasons for their avoidance, namely lack of trust and the limitations of online communication, and adds a final question May 21 Can you think for any other possible reasons? Two members respond on the discussion board, one saying they trust the group, one blaming the virtual medium. Clarissa brings up the issue again at the next meeting on May 30. When no one responds, she suggests a solution with which the group feels comfortable; it is that

each member should post to the discussion board a reflection about one of the process issues flagged in the formative feedback given on the folio. This was to include, on Clarissas insistence, not only the what but also the analytical why she had demonstrated. Her suggestion was endorsed by Cliff, the Chairperson, but at the last meeting, and a group discussion could not ensue. Cliff, a mature aged student with extensive management experience, initially focuses on the doing part of the VPLT. As Chair, he deflects from reflective discussion by bringing up procedural matters but seems comfortable chairing group discussion of peripheral matters such as Macroeconomics (one of the other BComm courses), their individual learning contracts and their experience of other teams. Following feedback on the folio draft, Cliff can appreciate the benefit of reflecting on the VPLT as management practice. Eventually he is able to chair a twelve minute group reflection. This is an extract:

May 18 07:53:25 I would say that it has been frustrating not only to myself but even my non attendance could have annoyed members. May 18 07:55:30 Remember this is based on our individual perceptions and feelings. May 18 07:56:54 Yes Clarissa may interpret things differently from me which is good as we can then see how other perceive the team and its challenges.

The final folio demonstrates strong reflection in writing, some analysis and evidence of some improvements in practice.

Cycle 3: Group I

This group of three shared an initial negative experience of the course. Stephen had started a month late, and Trudy and Charles were from groups that had never formed. Group I also had in common the motivation for learning, a desire for exceptional results, a preparedness to take risks and think creatively.

Charles droll chairmanship is supported by Trudys uncanny know-how with analysis and practical leadership. Trudy was new to tertiary study but had worked for many years as a financial analyst. She said that she was able to see the similarities between analysis of financial data and the application of theory to the behaviour of VPLT members. Trudy took leadership by providing a practical four step way, outlined in a posting to the group discussion board on Sep 20, for the group to efficiently tackle the assessment requirements in the reduced time available. Charles was happy (Sep 22) for her to take charge of the agenda like this and Stephen thought Sep 23 your 4 step process (posting exercises, reviewing other members postings, meeting and answering review questions, planning for next week and discussing folio) is terrific, very clear and easy to follow.

As well as providing structure for their communication, Trudy in her lengthy postings, from one of which an extract follows, is timely and persistent at keeping the group to her schedule, maintaining communication, following up with others suggestions, summarising the teams progress and modelling a way of demonstrating their learning.

Sep 24 Considering we all seem to have the same goals in mind for this team, similar understanding of what it is were doing this is creating team cohesiveness. The text describes this as the degree of attraction people feel toward the team and their motivation to remain members p. 284 this will result in our needs being fulfilled by the team ie our need to learn, progress studies, achieve good marks and then we will want to remain members of I team. I have reviewed the text (ch 9 pp278-286) and I can see our team clearly moving thru the theoretical; stages of team formation.

Following Trudys lead all three are soon taking it in turns on the discussion board to work through the course requirements, process at length the team operation and apply all steps of Kolb. Charles and Stephens previous studies in law and science seemed to provide the cognitive ability to analyse at a high level.

Group members are also able to give one another positive and negative feedback on the discussion board. Sep 22 Charles responding to Trudy and Stephen: Stephen. I think this posting shows that you have an excellent idea about how to start working

in a team. As we are finding out though, time-management is a key requirement to successful output and that seems to be something you need to work on.

Stephen is able to accept the criticism and act upon his espoused goal of selfimprovement. Sep 23 Stephen responds to Trudy and Charles: I can relate to your style Trudy of wanting to do everything your own way. I tend to be like that.however it can lead to procrastination in order to wait and produce the perfect result, which in turn can frustrate others especially in the team environment as we have experienced in the past week. So one of my personal goals is to learnhow to contribute on time and consistently without the need to rush at the last minute, thereby enabling the others to review my work and offer their response.

Interestingly the group uses the virtual chat simply for the mechanics of realising Trudys plan of action. Any attempts to discuss process issues in real time are quashed by Charles dry lets move on.

The final product is outstanding, demonstrating deep learning in all phases of the Kolb cycle.

Group L In Group L, Bill and Joseph agree to reflect on their group processes, but Chris insists that a more structured way to complete the folio is to simply answer the review

questions. Bill and Chris lock horns in an online debate. Chris eventually wins, with the result that weekly individual reflections are included in the folio; but there is no discussion of these in meetings. After the debate the group agree that they have become productive and are now performing.

Group J This group shared previous negative experiences of tertiary study. Alan takes a lead in the group expression of hatred for the course and resistance to the task of reflection. By mid semester nothing has been produced for formative feedback. Some individual attempts at least to give an indication of working are unsuccessful, and some members leave. At the last minute Alan singlehandedly produces a folio that is purely descriptive. Cross case thematic analysis The cross case analysis is based on the following themes: leadership, as a signal of defensive behaviour or of assistance in group development communication, as pointer to group maturity reflection, as indicator of levels of learning impact of teacher as anxiety container Leadership To the shared motivation to learn, Trudys leadership in Group I added, a structure and mode of communication, as well as the modelling of how to demonstrate learning. It was not however a dependent relationship; rather it established the working context in which group members could contribute equally and develop as a team. For the Yay team leadership was various. Richards understood the task and departed when uncomfortable with it, Clarissas insisted on both reflection and analysis, and Cliffs had organisational expertise.

Leadership in the other groups however was related more to basic assumption functioning. The Blue Groups dynamics are characterised by the groups basic assumption dependency on Stellas informal but powerful leadership, prompted by her high levels of insecurity. Once Millys formal position as Chair had been undermined, the group could operate as one unconsciously colluding to avoid any group reflection. When SPC became dependent upon Adrian, energy was spent in loyalty to Adrian over Daniel. In Group L Charles online challenge to Bill was ultimately successful in demonstrating the groups oneness. Group J after taking the lead from Alan to fight the course most members then fled from it.

Maturity of communication can be seen to relate to non-defensive group behaviour or the ability to focus on the task of deep or double loop learning. Group Is language on the threaded discussion board appeared genuine with feedback both positive and negative given and acted upon. However communication in their virtual chats was more matter of fact dealing with logistics. The Yay team generally maintained a level of open communication about most matters. The communication of those defensive groups can be seen generally to deteriorate. The Blue Groups last month of meetings were reduced to idle chitchat. SPC lost even the mocking style of communication that characterised their early meetings. The language of Group L changed under Charles leadership to that of mechanics. Group Ls language of hatred for the course turned to love of sport before stopping completely. Reflection as indicator of levels of learning The response by the VPLTs to the task of reflection seems here to determine the ability to engage with the subsequent Kolb phases. Group I appears to have learnt deeply, operating in all phases of Kolb at a high level, and exhibiting throughout dynamics suggestive of double loop learning. But reflection was carried out asynchronously. The Yay teams individual reflections on, and analysis of, process issues, in response to Clarissas suggestion, were written too late for group discussion and action. Nonetheless the group increasingly demonstrated dynamics characteristic of double loop learning. The Blue Group invested much of its energy in defending against any group feedback. Consequently they confined themselves to the experience rather than reflecting on it and operated within the existing norms of single loop learning. After Adrian had encouraged SPC members Aug 30 08:37:17 not as a criticism of David but better to confront our weaknesses as a team to rectify them, there was no hint of any such reflection. The individual attempts by Joseph and Bill to reflect and analyse were included in Group Ls folio. But as there was no group discussion about these, the group remained at the level of single loop learning. Individual comments about Group Js slackness and loss of focus were not responded to in meetings. Impact of teacher as anxiety container In cycle one the teacher was very involved with the Blue Group. After an initial intervention about team operation was ignored, the teacher later attempted to get the group to process the leadership coup. It seems that, while the teacher was present in the chat, members were eventually able to give feedback; but with her departure the previous dynamics reappeared. The teacher had little to do with SPC.

In cycle two Richards understanding of the team task resulted from his reading of the course discussion board. It seems that Clarissa acted following the teachers formative feedback on the Yay team folio. In cycle three Team I is of interest because members deep understanding of the task was idiosyncratic, with Richards related to formative feedback on learning contract and the other two to design matters: Trudys to repeated reading of the course instructions, and Charles to the completion of a team exercises. The teacher had no involvement in Team Is discussion board or chat room. In Group L the teacher had given Bill extensive formative feedback on his learning contract. Attendance by the teacher at one of their meetings seemed of significance to Joseph and Bill but not Chris. The teacher had responded to Group Js request to form a company, and had suggested that the group reflect on their processes within this. Conclusion It seems, that in this experiential online Organisation Behaviour course, defensive group dynamics can operate as a more potent factor on group learning, than that of the teacher as designer or facilitator. The cyclical deepening in learning, demonstrated by the ability of some VPLT cases to begin to reflect and improve their practice, might seem to result from improvements in educational design and online facilitation. However, the third cycle comprised, not only Group Is deep or double loop learning, but also Groups L and J, with the worst learning outcomes. It seems that, if group members remain overall more anxious than motivated about the task of learning, the course design and interventions of online moderator, seem to have little impact on these defensive dynamics. However, if the dynamics of the group are such that it can operate as a work group, motivated to learn, the input of teacher can assist such nondefensive groups, in particular to reflect on their operation as a means of improving it. Deep learning in some groups has also been seen to have been assisted by members with management experience and important skills in structuring online group interaction and enabling improvements of practice. Cognitive ability and experience in relating theoretical ideas to practice have also been beneficial, as has the echoing of the teachers modelling of learning behaviours. But, it has been seen that by themselves, such skills and the role of the teacher, can appear powerless in the face of defensive group dynamics, which bind members together apparently uncontrollably. It seems that nondefensive group dynamics are a precondition for a groups ability to learn deeply. References Agryis, C. & Schon, D. A. (1974). Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Agryis, C. & Schon, D. A. (1978). Organizational Learning a Theory of Action Perspective. Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley.

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