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Mitigating conflict in online student teams

By Richard Dool / February 2007

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My cell phone rings at 10:37 p.m. I reluctantly answer, anticipating the reason for the call. Team assignments are due tonight, and a call this late is seldom made to tell me everything is wonderful. Sure enough, there is trouble in "team-land" and panic is setting in: A teammate has gone AWOL and his part is not done. Professors using team assignments in online courses often get calls or e-mails like this.

I have had the privilege--and at times, the agony--of overseeing more than 200 graded online team assignments, and I have learned how to mitigate much of the inevitable conflict that arises. What follows below are basic guidelines for handling these conflicts. These guidelines can help ensure that learning objectives are met and that students have a positive experience.

I conducted an informal poll of students at the four universities where I have taught online courses, and results indicate that more than 60 percent "dislike" team assignments. The primary reasons students offer are difficulty in getting everyone on the "same page," unclear instructions and expectations, and the fact that their grade depends on others.

Given the potential conflicts in team assignments and the general disdain by students, why do professors persist in using team assignments? In discussions with many of my peers, the answers range from a belief in the value of learning how to be a positive team member to reducing the grading load. Bu there is little question about the value of learning to perform on teams.

An Essential Skill

The use of teams by organizations of all sizes and orientation has grown significantly. In 1998, one estimate held that a third of American companies with fifty or more employees would put at least half of them on self-managed or problem-solving teams by the early 2000s. Almost 70 percent of my online students have reported working in teams in some form, in the last 12 months. CEOs routinely list "teamwork" as a desired skill for new employees.

Additionally, as globalization compresses time and space, the use of virtual teams continues to rise. A recent study by the Gartner Group stated that by 2008, 41 million corporate employees will operate in a virtual workplace at least one day per week. I use team assignments in virtually all my online and on-campus courses because I believe that learning to be an effective member of a team, especially a virtual team, has become a necessary career competency.

The sources of conflicts in student teams mirror those of face-to-face teams. Most conflict can be traced to differences in expected outcomes (grades), roles, style, values and resources (time), or basic personality conflicts. Because communication is often asynchronous and virtual, there seem to be more opportunities for miscommunication, much like those we find in the workplace today with e-mail and instant messaging. The primary difference in online student teams is the element of virtuality (combined with time-zone differences), which significantly undermines "real time" intervention or management. We also do not have the luxury of "seeing" the conflict holistically, because we often lack the means to witness nonverbal elements in the interactions.

Role Players

As Edward Volchok noted in his "Building Better Virtual Teams" article for eLearn Magazine, students assume a variety of roles in teams; some are assigned and others seized without election or appointment. Volchok identified some of those roles as "Mussolinis, Shrinking Violets, and Rambos." I have dealt with these as well. However, conflict seems to bring out a number of additional personalities in students.

I often run into the "Martyr," the "Excuse-meister," the "Silent Partner," and "Breathless in...(fill in your town here)." The "Martyr" is quick to point out that he has had to do much more than everyone else on the team because no one else seems to be taking his/her part seriously. The "Excuse-meister" has a lot of creative energy, unfortunately he tends to focus it on why he could not do his full part for the team. He has an array of excuses that he uses to persuade his teammates to carry more of the load, somehow rationalizing that they have less to do than he does. These almost always seem to be about a sudden illness, computer challenges, or a last-minute work assignment.

"Breathless in ..." will call at the first sign of an issue and tends to cry wolf a bit. This can be annoying, but this student also often serves as an "early warning system" to the instructor. The most problematic is the "Silent Partner." The Silent Partner is not really a partner in any meaningful sense, other than he expects to receive the same credit as the other team members, though he has been absent from much of the team process. He prefers to let others carry the load and then appears at the end with his tale of woe. I see "going silent" as teaming's top transgression and stress how destructive this can be several times to the students early in the course.

I have been tracking sources of conflicts for the last three years. In that time, team members "going silent" is the number one source of conflict in the student team projects I have overseen. The number two conflict has involved "quality." Students are unhappy about the quality of some of the input from their peers for the team assignment. Number three, unfortunately, has been accusations of plagiarism about a teammate.

Setting the Stage

I believe the foundation for mitigating team conflict is laid before the team even starts. There are several preventative actions an instructor can take before the teams are set in motion. It all starts with the instructor's attitude towards team assignments. I have learned that students will often perform to expectations if they are properly and consistently reminded of them. I clearly tell them what I expect: Though life gets in the way sometimes, they must adopt a "we vs. me" attitude and a real commitment to the team.

The next most important foundational element is the syllabus. The syllabus should clearly state the purpose and expectations of the team assignment. The grade for the assignment should be significant enough to warrant proper attention--I recommend somewhere between 15 and 30 percent of the final grade. In addition to an explicit syllabus, I post a document entitled "There is No 'I' in Team." Addressed here are the importance of learning to be a productive and positive team-member, some of the common pitfalls of teams, examples of both good and unproductive teaming behaviors, and a reminder about the "we are all in it together" grading policy.

Because of the issues surrounding plagiarism, I post all the usual admonitions about academic integrity and require students to use the "Turnitin" service (if the school has licensed it). However, this has not deterred all the would-be plagiarists, so I expect the team to monitor itself as well. I ask that each student send me an e-mail indicating that they understand the syllabus, teaming document, and expectations about plagiarism. Since I strongly believe in the instructor's role as an "excuse eliminator" as well as an educator, I also post a reminder or two about the importance of positive teaming before and during the team process.

I also make use of a "Team Charter," to which I attach a portion of the team assignment's grade (5 percent). It is developed by the team based on a template I provide, which includes role assignment, a skills inventory, contact and meeting information, and the process to manage conflict within the team. There is also the added benefit of subconscious "pledging" when the team commits to a Team Charter. I usually make this the first team deliverable. Additionally, I expect a "Team Log" to be turned in with each team deliverable. The Log essentially documents the team's activities and describes who did what.

The last section of this stage is the actual team formulation. Instructors form teams several ways. They sometimes let the students decide amongst themselves. If teams existed in the past, they may re-use them. But I prefer to assign the teams myself.

I have tried many different methods and have learned that when I assign them, there seems to be less conflict. I follow a simple formula: First, I wait until we are a week or two into the course before assigning teams. This gives me a chance to get a sense of the talent and activity levels of the students. I put together students from the same time zone, if possible, but certainly not more than 1 hour different. After this, I spread out the talent a bit. I ensure that each team has both strong and weaker students. I have found that this method seems to help mitigate conflict to some degree because the teams are more balanced.

Instructor Participation

Once the teams are set, the instructor's role shifts to monitoring and encouraging. Because many team conflicts are often presented to instructors as "he said/he said" situations, it becomes challenging to manage interventions in an appropriate manner. I expect teams to perform "in the open." I create "team rooms" of some sort, to which I have access, so I can "witness" the team in action. Most of the online systems used by colleges have this capability. If not, I ask that the teams give me access as a team member, to the site they set up (e.g. Yahoo Groups). I do not allow teams to conduct their activities solely through e-mail. If they do use e-mail to any extent, in addition to the team room, I ask that they "Cc" me as well. Obviously, this does not always happen but I let students know that unless I have "evidence" of the conflict, I will assume the entire team is at fault for the dysfunction and grade accordingly. This seems to keep most of their activities out in the open. I also expect each student to create evidence of participation, beyond the team log, by being active in the team room.

Finally, I monitor the team rooms from time to time, usually posting a message asking if they need anything or are having any issues. This lets them know I am hovering in the background.

Interventions Matrix

Despite this active preventative approach, conflicts do happen from time to time. I usually use a matrix of three types of intervention: soft, hard, and "shock & awe." Soft interventions are gentle reminders that the team needs to solve its own problems. When I see an issue developing or receive a call or e-mail from a team member who is "worried" about the team, I will post or send a reminder about positive teaming behaviors, the need to adopt a team-first attitude, and their grade interdependence. Sometimes I will talk to a student live to help mitigate the conflict before it escalates. Soft interventions tend to be delivered as "advice" or "food for thought." I am not solving their problem but I am nudging them in the right direction.

If that does not work, I take a more direct approach. Hard interventions may include an array of instructor actions such as speaking to a specific student, speaking to the team itself, or changing the team parameters. In "hard" approaches, my focus tends to shift to specific recommendations to help them overcome the conflict. For example, a recent team had an issue with a teammate who could not seem to understand the concept of cooperation. The team had adopted a "majority rules" process for conflicts in their Charter but had not enforced it. I suggested they enforce it and if the student did not agree, he could escalate it to me for resolution. Somehow, he learned to "cooperate" overnight.

If that fails, and the learning objectives are clearly in jeopardy, it is time for the "shock & awe" approach. I usually conduct a live conference call with the team. At this point, the team can no longer operate effectively so I have to be more direct and prescribe how the team will operate from this point forward. I remind them directly that the team will suffer in the grading if they cannot find a way to get their act together.

A recent example was a continuing issue with accusations of plagiarism within a team. In the end, I required each team member to send me a personal email attesting that the work they delivered in the team was either original work or cited properly. If I did not get these from every team member, the whole team would fail the assignment. The team managed to resolve the issue and the paper was properly delivered. I wish I could say that these interventions work 100 percent of the time, but sadly I have had situations where the team dysfunction was so bad it could not be resolved. These, fortunately, have been rare.

The Aftermath

The biggest challenge for the instructor is to assign grades fairly for a team assignment. Many instructors use a "one grade fits all" approach, not allowing for any distinction between team members. Other instructors create a means to adjust the grades within the team based on individual contribution. We use a "Team Evaluation" method that asks each student to assess their own and their teammates' contributions to the team assignments. This method is used to deal with legitimate cases where individual students have gone above and beyond, covered for a teammate's lack of contribution, or to address an issue with a specific student. I rarely adjust individual grades within a team. In my experience it has been less than 10 percent of the time and only with hard evidence. The ability to administer grades individually has helped in specific situations, and just the potential for a grade adjustment within the team seems to lessen some of the students' angst about team assignments and grade interdependence.

Worth the Trouble?

Because of the early painful lessons I learned in trying to deal with conflict in student online teams, I developed the process outlined above. Yes, it adds to an instructor's workload and can be tedious at times, but it does work. Conflicts in student teams where I needed to intervene have dropped almost 70 percent since I deployed these steps. I continue to use team assignments because I strongly believe this is a necessary career competency and I hope that the students will learn how to be a positive team member. As a CEO, I valued teamwork and those employees who knew how to make it work.


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