How effective are groups in an online setting?


The idea of working in a group with people from all over the world was probably thought of as an impossibility twenty years ago. How would they communicate and how could we effectively share our ideas? Though we think of an interaction like this as normal with the introduction of the internet, these same questions continue to plague us. How does group interaction vary online compared to in person? What creates these differences?

The process of group interactions follows a series of steps that evolve the group into a successful ‘well oiled’ machine. These steps outlined by Tuckman (1965) show how a group forms, storms, norms and performs. The first step being forming allows teams to get to know each other, figure out roles and learn how to communicate. Let’s stick with this stage and dive into it a little deeper. In a face to face group interaction is instant; forming opinions about people is done through gestures, facial expressions and of course verbally. So how does this work online? A study put different groups online and had each member rate their experience. A common complaint, “I think that the most frustrating part for me was the inability to interact face-to-face with my group members (Tseng, 2013).” The inability to see each group member makes it difficult to advance from the forming process, or the group does but without effectively knowing each other. The remedy for this may be hard in an online setting, the best thing to do would be voice chat or video chat. This could possibly allow for the interaction a group needs, and progress the group past the forming process.

What creates the differences we see in an online group setting? The most obvious thing is the lack of face to face contact. That impersonal feeling makes interacting in the group harder, which makes it easy to slack off. The diversity of any group setting is challenging, but online this challenge is hard to overcome. As the members in our research groups said, if each individual is accountable than they are “ok with group activities” (Tseng, 2013). This step can be called the performing step in Tuckman’s process, the part where the group works and gets the task done. Online, this may be difficult to accomplish with the slacking members and some may even have to work harder just to get the goal done. Though the online process can be successful, it is largely influenced by the individuals in the group.

Every group is different, and challenging in its own way. The group interactions we face may ultimately follow the steps Tuckman lists, but successfully completing these stages is harder in an online setting. The impersonal nature of online communication makes it hard to understand each other and for ‘instant gratification’ that is so important in a group setting. Only if the group members hold themselves accountable, and overcome the challenges, can an online group be successful.







Online Materal. Pennsylvania State University, Psych 424.


Tseng, H. W., & Yeh, H. (2013). Team members’ perceptions of online teamwork learning experiences and building teamwork trust: A qualitative study. Computers & Education, 63, 1-9.

1 comment

  1. I see your point about how it can be very difficult to overcome some of the challenges presented with online group work. I had a Spanish teacher that had overcome that through using blackboard. Group members had to coordinate, all meet at a designated time and perform an audio and visual recording of their communications. If a member slacked off, The team mates could notify the teacher that they were unable to communicate with the parson. This held each person accountable, but the interaction between members of the group was graded as well, it couldn’t be over scripted. I think if more teachers required video recordings of meetings, it would decrease the student’s ability to slack off.

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