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Wise words and dread warnings: making sense of (virtual) groups

Linda Perriton, University of York, York, UK, Michael Reynolds, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK

Participative designs for learning are commonly advocated in Networked Learning whether generally as 'collaborative' approaches to learning or more specifically in the form of models such as the 'learning community'. Such designs are likely to involve students and teachers in any of the complexities associated with collective endeavour: whether interpersonal, social, cultural or political. In non-virtual education, there is a long tradition of theoretical frameworks: from the Interaction Process Analysis developed by Bales (1950) and Bion's (1961) classic theory of group dynamics to more recent applications of Activity Theory and studies of students' experience. But there appears to have been less work of this kind specifically in relation to group work within VLEs. It is as if the tradition of participative pedagogy has found a home within the domain of Networked Learning but ideas which could be necessary in understanding the dynamics generated within such pedagogies have been left behind.

There is evidently a wide range of perspectives from which experience of social and political aspects of group work within VLEs has been researched and the authors of this paper give examples of these. But there seems less in the way of translating the findings of such studies into practical guidelines for understanding (virtual) group dynamics and, where appropriate, for doing something about them.  Using illustrations of the kinds of situation we might well as teacher/facilitators need to understand, the authors propose a bridge between research and teaching in the form of questions which as teachers, we can ask ourselves or use in discussion with participants. The paper first briefly considers the differences and similarities between virtual and non-virtual groups before introducing illustrative examples of research studies of group work and of research studies which are developed further as proposals for 'facilitation'. Two illustrations of situations are then described in which tutors and/or students may find it interesting or necessary to have some means of explanation.  The paper ends with examples of the kinds of questions which are based on theory but which might be applied in making sense of (virtual) group dynamics as they occur within participative programmes.

Group dynamics, theoretical framing, facilitator knowledge, online learning environments

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