Cloudy Skies over Online Study Groups

Whenever, in the long history of schooling, students collectively faced the same unpleasant tasks, they responded in the most obvious way: they joined forces and pooled their resources, passing on notes, sharing reading summaries, or discussing potential exam questions.

Students are still joining forces today. But now they are deploying the latest digital services available for online collaboration. Everyone can participate, everyone can upload, everyone gets access to all the notes and summaries ever written. The average mark will inevitably go up. We learn with each other and from each other. A common knowledge repository emerges, open and free for all, available as a living archive long after the last exam has been written.

Or so the story goes. As MSc students at the London School of Economics (LSE), we fell for it. We set up a Wiki (based on Google Sites) and exchanged numerous Google docs. But as the Wiki took on a life of its own and the sharing of Google docs became a complex web of give and take, some frustration kicked in. This left some of us wondering. What are the success factors for online study groups? What social dynamics should we watch out for?

Who’s in?

In the pre-Internet days, the number of people you studied with was limited by the amount of photocopies you were willing to distribute. Times have changed. There is virtually no limitation to the number of Wiki contributors. In fact, for many communities aggregating knowledge (for instance, Wikipedia itself or any open source software project) the quantity and quality of knowledge increases as more people contribute or report mistakes.

Such reasoning also drives online study groups to invite ever more students into their Wikis, or whatever else they set up. It certainly led us to extend the scope of contributors from students within our MSc programme in New Media to dozens of other Media & Communications students at LSE – and eventually even teaching staff. Oh well, there is nothing wrong with pooling all the resources available, right?

Well, there might be. In our case, we quickly lost track of who had access to the notes on our Wiki. Not knowing who the audience was, some people quickly felt discouraged to post their notes and refrained from leaving questions or comments. They didn’t know who was reading and judging them. This problem became more urgent once teaching staff had been added to the group, without giving notice to all student contributors.

So one conclusion from our experience was that online study groups are not necessarily scalable, even if the technology would allow them to be. You still need to know who you’re studying with. In other words, the group boundaries need to be visible and access to group membership must be transparent. Arguably, the value added through each additional contributor also sharply declines – or may even becomes negative, as the amount of information thrown in becomes overwhelming.

Who said that?

The days are gone in which you could recognize the author of some lecture notes by their hand writing. Everything is typed up. Platforms and services for online collaboration allow you to comment on each other’s writings, to edit them, or to reorganize them. Indeed, we observed some useful discussions, when we elaborated on the points made by someone else or cross-referenced related information. Our notes were truly a common good, open for everybody to change around.

But that became a problem as well. Once people make changes to a document, it is no longer clear who the author of that document is. Several contributors would add remarks and quotes, highlighting them with all the colors Google has to offer – but without adding their name. To be fair, our Wiki did allow us to trace the changes made to each site and the number of collaborators on any given Google doc was small. However, this is cumbersome and after several weeks of exam preparation you no longer knew what the source of some argument or quote was.

And so a second conclusion was that contributions to online study groups should carry a name tag, for the sake of accountability and clarity. Interestingly, many of the members of our online study group returned to making their private notes in the days before an exam because they wanted to structure them according to their personal needs, without the risk of having them rearranged by somebody else.

Social ingredients

As these points on group boundaries and authorship already indicate, the success of online study groups depends a lot on the underlying social dynamics. You may compile notes as much as you want, but if the necessary social ingredients are missing, the online study group is likely to be ineffective. Three ingredients should not be missing: leadership, norms of reciprocity, and – most importantly – a good amount of trust underneath it all.

The role of a group leader is an ambiguous one in any online community. After all, these communities are supposed to be based on egalitarian principles and absolutely flat hierarchies. So why should we need leaders? In our case, they helped us to create some momentum in the early days and to spread the word. The group administrator also took on the role of setting up the Wiki structure and explaining the functionalities to “newbies”. In other words, it’s good to have somebody to provide guidance and structure. However, the tricky thing for leaders is to stay in the background and to allow other contributors to develop their own ways of using the resources. A leader who is also by far the most active user of the Wiki and exercises too much control over the submission and structure of content may deter others.

Secondly, some norms of reciprocity should be in place, reflecting another key feature of voluntary online communities. You give what you take, as they say. Again, this is not as straightforward as it may sound. For example, it doesn’t mean that you need to share some of your google docs, the very moment you are given access by somebody else. And it may well happen, that the person you share with never gets the chance to return the favor. In fact, it should be respected when somebody chooses not to contribute with her notes. Perhaps some people stayed away from our Wiki because they were afraid of the obligations of group membership. Perhaps granting somebody access puts them in an awkward situation of having to face the expectations of the group.

Finally, all of this is essentially about trust. Trust in others to contribute, trust in their works, trust in their judgment, trust in leadership, trust in people to follow the norms of the group. And so the question really is: Where does this trust come from? I will leave a detailed discussion of this for later and to all those books that have been written about it. Of course, any such discussion should take into account the complex interplay between online and offline interaction.

And so…

And so we see that there is way more to study groups than just uploading notes or sharing Google docs. The process of setting up and running an online study group taught us some valuable lessons already. It is important to know who the group members are and what they contribute. This seems obvious but is oftentimes overlooked when online study groups are extended beyond any meaningful boundaries. Moreover, the social dynamics that online study groups can give rise to may become a major obstacle to their success, or even frustrate their members.

Whether our Wiki helped us get better grades is yet to be seen  – they haven’t been published yet. It also remains to be seen what happens to our Wiki after we all graduated. Will it continue to be a useful knowledge repository, or will we quickly loose interest? And who owns the content, anyways? Ownership seems to be a trivial question, but none of us is able to control how and where the content is used – although I currently cannot think of a way in which it might be abused. Maybe more crucially, only the site administrator is able to manage access or shut down the Wiki entirely.

There’s no doubt that online means of studying together will continue to be popular among students when they face exams or essays. But they should be aware of some of the pitfalls mentioned above. And, as a teacher would say, no essay or exam will ever write itself, and no online study group will replace studying all together.

2 responses to “Cloudy Skies over Online Study Groups

  1. Pingback: Peaceful co-existence – Social networks and niche communities « HerrHorn.com

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