Cohesiveness in Virtual Groups: Current and Proposed Research in Light of Online Distance Education

By Jason D. Baker
December 1999

In his discussion of the 21st century university, G.R. Jones (1997) heralded the advent of the virtual classroom where the student is the center of the learning process. One of benefits of this virtual classroom, in addition to abolishing the traditional hindrance of distance, is that "discussion and communication about the course become a continuous activity" (p. 48). This harmonizes with the predictions of Moore (1989) who identified three types of interaction in the distance classroom: learner-content, learner-instructor, and learner-learner. He commented that it is learner-learner interaction, "a new dimension of distance education, that will be a challenge to our thinking and practice in the 1990s" (p. 4). Such learner-learner interaction changes classroom dynamics, not only by forcing the instructor to adopt the role of facilitator rather than simply lecturer, but emphasizes the role of student as teacher.

The popularity of this new learning dimension ? distance learners interacting with one another ? has been fostered by the growth of the Internet. Online learning, using e-mail and the Web, makes it possible to create electronic learning environments where students can gather and learn together. This has resulted in a flurry of "how-to" style publications, including Khan (1997), McCormack & Jones (1997), and Porter (1997), which offer practical suggestions for how to develop such learning environments. However, the formal research hasn?t kept pace with the aggressive growth in distance education, particularly with this new dimension of interactive learner communities.

Fortunately, there has been some research on a related topic that might offer some relevant insight. While the concepts of interactivity and online community have often defied uniform definition, group cohesiveness appears to be the functional academic equivalent. The interactive nature of the Internet medium has led some researchers to extend this traditional small group concept of group cohesiveness into the mediated realm. Furthermore, the rise in telecommuting and virtual teams have provoked such research that there may be some significant overlap with the idea of virtual learning communities. Therefore, the purpose of this research paper is to examine the current cadre of research into online group cohesiveness, with a particular focus on the characteristics and effects of the online medium on cohesiveness, in an attempt to outline areas for future research could be pursued. This paper will contain a brief historical perspective on group cohesiveness, a review of current literature related to online group cohesiveness, and will then conclude with suggestions for future research, particularly in light of the growth of online distance education.

Group Cohesiveness: 1950s to Today

Not unlike the current style of bellbottom pants, the study of group cohesiveness went from fashionable in the 1950s and 60s, to out-of-fashion in the 70s and 80s, and back into fashion in the 90s. In this vein, Mudrack (1989b) commented, "At first glance, cohesiveness seems a curiously anachronistic construct; along with automobile tail fins, it evokes enduring images of the 1950s. Yet, the notion of group cohesiveness has long been central to the study of group dynamics" (p. 771). Let?s examine the definition of group cohesiveness and highlight a few typical applications of the concept.

According to Mudrack (1989a), the classical description of a cohesive group is, "one that ?sticks together? ? one whose members are ?bonded? to one another and the group as a whole" (p. 39). The majority of group cohesiveness research has attempted to measure cohesiveness by looking at how individuals members? are attracted to the group. The most common measure, the Gross Cohesiveness Scale (GCS), "is a simple patient-rated appraisal indicating group members? subjective impression of the attractiveness of the group" (Budman, Soldz, Demby, Davis, & Merry, 1993, p. 200). Published in 1957, the GCS is perhaps the most frequently used measure of group cohesiveness (Cota, Dion, & Evans, 1993). A more recent instrument consolidated the measure into a single question by equating group cohesiveness to interpersonal attraction (Aiken, 1992). Each participant was given a list of all group members and asked to indicate how much he/she liked interacting with that person using a seven-point Likert-type scale.

A typical application of this approach was conducted by Roark & Sharah (1989) who examined the factors related to small group cohesiveness. Borrowing from previous research, they defined cohesion as "the average of the individual members? attraction to the group" (p. 62). They examined the correlation between group cohesiveness and empathy, self-disclosure, acceptance, and trust and found that all four factors correlated strongly with cohesiveness and one another. In attempting to untangle the nature of the correlation, they declared that while cohesion could lead to increased empathy, acceptance, self-disclosure, and trust, "an equally good (or perhaps better) case can be made that an increase in these factors will lead to an increase in cohesion" (p. 67).

This attractiveness-oriented approach to group cohesiveness has come under fire in the past decade as the concept has returned to active use. One of the criticisms has been that this approach sacrifices the "group" in group cohesiveness in order to develop an easy measure. "Definitions that employ the notions of ?attraction-to-group? or ?mutual positive attitudes? ? while clearly easier to operationalize ? focus exclusively on individuals at the expense of the group, and therefore many not entirely capture the concept of group cohesiveness" (p. 42). One alternative, offered by Goodman, Ravlin, & Schminke (1987), would be to measure commitment to task rather than attractiveness to group members.

Regardless of the specific measure of group cohesiveness, there have been two primary applications of the concept ? productivity in task-oriented groups and groupthink. Many of the studies since the 1950s and 60s have attempted to link group cohesiveness and productivity. In other words, do cohesive groups accomplish their tasks better than non-cohesive ones? Examples of such research include Schachter, Ellertson, McBride, & Gregory (1951) who examined cohesiveness and checkerboard assembly in an experimental setting, Mikalachki (1969) who looked at cohesiveness and productivity in pre-existing industrial work groups, and Sheridan (1985) who examined the effects of cohesiveness on first-year employee job performance. However, despite the general attitude that cohesiveness was good for productivity, the researchers ultimately failed to produce evidence of a clean relationship between cohesiveness and productivity (Mudrack, 1989b). "Rather, cohesiveness appeared to influence productivity only after interacting with a group?s ?orientation toward productivity?" (pp. 773-774). In other words, productive groups demonstrated both cohesiveness and an orientation to production, which non-productive groups demonstrated neither. Recent studies by Greene (1989) and Langfred (1998) demonstrated a correlation between cohesiveness and productivity but, as with previous efforts, indicated that there were other influential variables that prevent the singular attribution of causality.

The other major application of group cohesiveness has been in groupthink research. Janis (1972) defined groupthink as

A quick and easy way to refer to a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when members? strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action?.Groupthink refers to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgement that results from in-group pressures. (p. 9)

Groupthink offers a different perspective on group cohesiveness than that found in task performance research. Rather than cohesiveness being assumed to be a benefit, the groupthink hypothesis argues that it is detrimental to the free-thinking of group members and ultimately the decision-making process. A cohesive group often gives rise to eight groupthink symptoms: illusions of invulnerability, belief in inherent group morality, rationalization, isolationism, self-censorship, direct pressure, mind guards, and unanimity illusions (Janis, 1982).

Janis (1982) demonstrated numerous examples where cohesiveness worked against effective decision-making. In similar studies (e.g., Callaway & McCauley, 1989, Chen, Lawson, Gordon, & McIntosh, 1996, Courtright, 1978,), group cohesiveness was measured to determine whether it contributed to groupthink and generally produced a positive correlation. Given the potential application of group cohesiveness to online learning, and even the research into cohesiveness and productivity, it is ironic that groupthink demonstrates a significant negative effect of cohesiveness. Perhaps cohesiveness fosters task efficiency at the expense of effectiveness. This raises some potential research questions about cohesiveness and computer mediated communication that will be addressed in the further research section of this paper.

Before examining the role of group cohesiveness in the virtual age, and specifically in relation to online distance education, it?s also useful to acknowledge that a number of group dynamics are interrelated with cohesiveness. One such dynamic is group purpose ? why does a particular group exist and what effect does that have on cohesiveness? As previously indicated, much of the cohesiveness research has focused on task-oriented work groups. However, since cohesiveness is strengthened by interpersonal factors such as self-disclosure and trust, perhaps there are other types of groups that would foster greater group cohesiveness. Indeed, Roark & Sharah (1989) found personal growth groups to be more conducive to cohesiveness than other types that they studied including psychotherapy and driving under the influence groups. Therefore, it seems likely that different types of groups would have different levels of group cohesiveness. Perhaps the most cohesive team of engineers working on a computer project would have a different depth of cohesiveness than a group of single mothers in a weekly support group. Other prominent group dynamics that have been extensively studied, and would likely influence cohesiveness, include gender issues, leadership styles, member roles, discussion methods, conflict and resolution, and group structure (Cragan & Wright, 1990).

Similarly, other group communication dynamics are relevant to the development of cohesiveness. Poole (1983) argued against the traditional view of group development phases and instead proposed a multiple sequence model of group decision development. Specifically, he argued that groups feature task process, relational, and topical focus activities that operate simultaneously and affect group development. Poole?s multiple sequence model "presents a picture of three stands of activity developing simultaneously, but at uneven rates?.The end effect is halting development, with the strands pushing forward at different rates" (p. 328). Such a model, although not directly related to cohesiveness, highlights the complexity related to group development. Group dynamics are constantly changing over time, and are affected by various breakpoint events, types of communication, and even the personalities of group members, therefore group cohesiveness may change over time. This not only raises questions about the significance of "snapshot" group cohesiveness measurements, but also the role that synchronous and asynchronous computer mediated communication might play in group dynamics.

Group Cohesiveness in the Virtual Age

Within the literature there has been little work done specifically to examine group cohesiveness in the online world. The two closest areas of study have been in the development of virtual teams and online community. There is also a small, but growing, interest in the application of group cohesiveness (or, more properly, virtual teams and online community) in the field of distance education. Let?s look at a few of the highlights from these efforts.

Virtual teams, according to Duarte & Snyder (1999), operate "without the physical limitations of distance, time, and organizational boundaries. They use electronic collaboration technologies and other techniques to lower travel and facility costs, reduce project schedules, and improve decision-making time and communication" (p. 4). They argue not only that organizations must consider using virtual teams in order to stay competitive in today?s business environment but also that virtual teams may be more efficient than traditional teams.

Much writing about virtual teams has come from the business and computer science fields and has largely focused on team development rather than team effectiveness research. Duarte & Snyder (1999) listed seven critical success factors for virtual teams: technology, human resource policies, training and development for both team leaders and members, standard organizational and team processes, organizational culture, leadership, and leader/member competencies. Reed, Giles, & Catlett (1997) examined existing online team collaboration with the National Computational Alliance. They concluded that such groups should be connected "via distributed data archives and high-resolution, high-modality collaborative environments" in order to ensure that the team will be able to focus on the task-at-hand rather than on the details of online collaboration (p. 47). Interestingly enough, these and other similar literature (e.g., Lipnack & Stamps, 1997, Melymuka, 1997, McGarvey, 1997, seems to indicate that the medium (in this case, the Internet) isn?t the major issue with virtual teams. Nunamaker Jr., Briggs, Romano Jr., & Mittleman (1997) found that when asked about successes and failures within virtual teams, neither team leaders nor team members listed the technology as a significant factor. Therefore, it appears that the media effect upon the virtual team isn?t as significant as the human factors (e.g., trust, group dynamics, leadership, competencies, etc.). Trust, in particular, appears to be a particularly important issue for virtual teams. "Because virtual teams ? especially parallel, project, action, and network teams ? often form and disband quickly, trust has to be built immediately?.Models of trust that focus on building long-term relationships may not apply to many virtual teams" (Duarte & Snyder, 1999, 139).

Community, more than cohesiveness, is the fashionable term for online relational development. Accordingly, there has been some research into the development of online community. Early research into the idea of online community appears to have been largely negative, positing that relational communication was simply not possible over the online medium (Walther & Burgoon, 1992). However, Walther & Burgoon (1992) argued that this assumption was faulty and that "the fixed, impersonal qualities imputed to CMC may not be inherent to the medium but strictly bounded to certain specifiable conditions and kinds of partners" (p. 52). Their research demonstrated that while relational communication did take longer to develop online, Internet communication could (given enough time) be as relationally supportive as face-to-face communication. While their research was focused on interpersonal communication, rather than communication in groups, relational communication is one of the oft-touted building blocks for online and offline community. In fact, much of the Internet growth has been predicated on an optimistic view of online community. As S.G. Jones (1998) observed:

Critical to the rhetoric surrounding the Internet use is the promise of a renewed sense of community and, in many instances, new types and formations of community. Computer-mediated communication (CMC), it seems, will do by way of electronic pathways what cement roads were unable to do, namely, connect us rather than atomize us. (p. 3)

Turkle (1995) presented a similar hope for online community as a means of recapturing social opportunities that were once popular. "Many of the institutions that used to bring people together ? a main street, a union hall, a town meeting ? no longer works as before?.Meanwhile, social beings that we are, we are trying (as Marshall McLuhan said) to retribalize" (p. 178). Baym (1998) performed a three-year ethnographic study on the Usenet newsgroup to learn whether community developed in this online forum. She found that relational and community development did, in fact, emerge through the online discussions. She noted a few interesting dynamics based on her observations:

The influence of participant characteristics on relational formation is seen in part in Myers?s finding that the most relationally oriented users? perception of the computer was as a place in which relationships can thrive. The extent to which social relationships develop on-line seems to be influenced in part by the presence of a relatively few heavy users whose perceptions of the medium lead them to encourage the creation of interpersonal bonds in ways that may be quite subtle?.The extent to which CMC groups appropriate the medium as a relational forum, and the ways in which they do so, are important issues in the social construction of computer-mediated societies. (pp. 59-60)

The growing popularity of online learning has resulted in an interest in the application of virtual groups and teams within the educational process. Palloff & Pratt (1999) commented that "Even in this virtual or electronic community, educators must realize that the way the medium is used depends largely on human?and that these needs are the prime reason that electronic communities are formed" (p. 23). They then offered practical suggestions for developing academic communities in online distance classes, including seven basic steps: clearly define the group?s purpose, create a distinctive online gathering place, promote effective leadership from within, define norms and a code of conduct, allow for a range of roles, permit and facilitate subgroups, and permit students to resolve their own disputes. They remind the reader that word community comes from the root communicare ("to share") and therefore encourage collaborative learning activities to enable students to share common experiences during the course of the online class.

A recent article by Berg (1999) took a similar approach and encouraged online instructors to use virtual teams to foster community development in distance courses. "The notion of community associated by pursuits is one that is useful in relationship to education ? it leads to rich connections with both constructivist learning theory and lessons learned from teams in business environments" (p. 33). By developing virtual teams, and providing common projects and interdependent tasks to work on, Berg argues that the pedagogical effectiveness of the distance course will be increased.

Further Research

The foundation has clearly been laid for further examination of the role of group cohesiveness within online distance education. As evident from the literature review, much work has been done to understand the dynamics involved with group cohesiveness. Furthermore, there has been much research done relating cohesiveness to task-oriented teams and some initial attempts to extend that concept to distance education. However, there is plenty of room for additional research efforts that examine the relationship between group cohesiveness and online learning. Specifically, I propose further research into the development of group cohesiveness in the online academic setting, the use of cohorts and project teams within distance education, and the effects of group cohesiveness on the learning experience.

The development of online group cohesiveness, or online community, is an area that warrants further investigation. Although the aforementioned literature included both ethnographic work, personal reflections, and practical advise for fostering online community, there appears to be few studies that actually explore this area in depth. For example, how does group development progress online versus in a traditional classroom. It would be interesting to compare on-campus and online sections of a course with periodic surveys or observations measuring group cohesiveness to see whether the groups move in parallel. Furthermore, since some practitioners (e.g., Kearsley, 1997) claim that online communication can produce greater student interaction than within the traditional classroom, it would be worth examining not only whether this is the case but why. Are there particular dynamics of asynchronous online communication that foster student participation and ultimately class cohesiveness or inhibit it? Do students themselves feel freer to contribute to online classes than they do when sitting in physical classrooms? Does this depend on factors such as personality (e.g., introvert vs. extrovert), fluency with computer technology, or learning styles?

Another question is whether the design of the virtual classroom or required assignments can influence, either positively or negatively, the development of group cohesiveness. Suppose, for example, that a class is delivered on the Web with all discussion messages archived at a central class Web site. Does this course "location" increase the perception of group cohesiveness over, for example, a course delivered entirely via e-mail? If students post photographs online, is online community fostered? If every student is given a special e-mail address for the course (or entire degree program) from the institution, does this identification increase class cohesiveness? The combination of media is another angle ? if the instructor combines online written and audio/visual communication (e.g., using streaming audio/video), will that foster greater class cohesiveness than online text alone?

Another area of research concerns cohorts and virtual teams within online courses. Does the use of a cohort model increase class cohesiveness in online courses? A longitudinal study could be done to examine perceptions of cohesiveness throughout a cohort program to see whether group cohesiveness increases over time. Do online cohorts follow similar patterns with offline cohorts? Does the use of some face-to-face residency time influence the level of cohesiveness when the cohort returns to an online-only setting? Similarly, if the instructor requires team projects during the semester, will the classes be more cohesive? (This last one is particularly interesting because, depending on the students? fluency with computers, I suspect that virtual teams could either be highly fruitful or greatly despised.) Do team members find that working online increases their productivity and team experience or is there a nagging desire to regroup and work offline? Does increased group cohesiveness within such project teams contribute or detract from overall class cohesiveness? Does groupthink occur as frequently with online teams as with offline ones? What are the major factors that students in virtual teams attribute to the development of a successful team? Do team members give any credit (or ascribe any blame) to the Internet itself as a factor in team dynamics?

There is also a need for further research into the effects of group cohesiveness within online classes. Is group cohesiveness, or online community, one of the uses and gratifications that students seek when selecting online programs? Do students even desire such a thing or do many students take online classes to avoid the types of group projects that they?ve come to expect offline? Are there any drawbacks to the development of group cohesiveness within an online class? For example, do students become less critical of one another?s ideas during online class discussions if they have a high level of cohesiveness? Do the effects of groupthink carryover into the online class interaction dynamic?

Finally, does group cohesiveness improve the learning experience? While the aforementioned research ideas interest me, and I may even pursue some of them in the future, this is the central question on my mind. I have spoken with some that feel class cohesiveness is beneficial to online learning and others who believe that it would detract from it. The argument by the latter group is often that the group efforts, involved with and resulting from, the development of class cohesion would distract from the actual instruction of course content. Obviously, such an attitude has significant effects upon how someone teaches an online course. Therefore, I?m very interested in the effects of class cohesiveness on question formation, perceived learning effectiveness, and student satisfaction in online distance education courses.

I?m currently developing an instrument, based on previous group cohesiveness research, to measure group cohesiveness within online courses. Recall that the traditional measures of cohesiveness (e.g., the Gross Cohesiveness Scale) have been criticized for being overly simplistic and there have been efforts to revisit such measures and develop more rounded ones. However, since the efforts thus far appear to have been designed only for task-oriented teams, it seems that designing a measure tailored for online classes (or, at the least, academic settings) is worth considering. I then hope to use that instrument, along with others already developed, to examine the relationship between this sense of class cohesiveness and question formation, learning effectiveness, and student satisfaction. While much of the research into effectiveness focuses on test scores, and even more neglects the community dynamic in online courses, I believe that this research effort will shed light on current distance practices and will also have implications for the instructional design and delivery of online courses. This is an area where the communication, and even media effects, perspective can illumine the practice of education.


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