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TECHNOLOGY AND SMALL GROUPS

Recent advances in new communication technologies are not only changing how small groups interact, but are also redefining our notion of a small group. Although some organizations have used technology such as telephones and videoconferencing for some time, those communication tools are costly. New technologies, particularly the Internet, allow for asynchronous and synchronous communication among small group members at relatively low cost. These technologies are altering small group membership, functions, and processes.

Research on Technology and Small Group Communication

Most research on the use of technology in small group work compares groups that use communication technologies (such as discussion boards and videoconferencing) to those that meet face-to-face. With the rapid changes in communication technology, many problems associated with groups that do not meet face-to-face have been reduced or eliminated. Still, groups that never meet face-to-face can encounter difficult challenges. And yet, not meeting face-to-face also has its advantages.

New communication technologies can create new environments that produce more open, fluid, and dynamic small group environments. For example, recent research suggests that online discussions facilitate collaborative learning in the university classroom. One study found that students who are actively engaged in online discussion earned higher grades in large lecture class and felt that they learned more than students who did not participate. New communication technologies also have the potential to provide an avenue of participation for historically disadvantaged and disenfranchised group members.

Yet, new communication technologies can be costly, both in terms of time and money. Users who are unfamiliar with the technology and communication etiquette can become frustrated and discouraged. Computer software and hardware are expensive and need regular upgrades to keep up with the ever-changing world of new technology.

Group Outcomes

Several studies have found that groups interacting either synchronously (e.g., chat rooms, audio or video-conferencing) or asynchronously (discussion boards, listservs) produced higher quality decisions, unique solutions, and more creative ideas than face-to-face groups. Listservs, discussion boards, and chat rooms in particular tend to facilitate participation by all group members, thus improving their yield of ideas. For example, with asynchronous communication (listservs and discussion boards), group members have time to reflect on what others have posted, and contemplate responses. Also, some software allows for anonymity in computer- mediated interactions. Research in organizational decision making has found that this anonymity can produce better contributions to group problem solving and decision making.

However, other research has found that face-to-face groups out-perform groups that meet via mediated tools. Although mediated groups may develop a greater number of unique ideas, the final product is not always better. Group members do not always use the technology available, so the overall amount of interaction may be reduced. It can be easier for group members to avoid participating and contributing their fair share to task completion when group members do not meet face-to-face. Group members can simply delete emails, avoid the discussion board, or fail to attend a chat room meeting. The relative anonymity of mediated interactions can reduce group member loyalty and motivation.

Still, a lot of research has found no differences between face-to-face and mediated group decision making. Brainstorming, achieving consensus, and producing a quality report can be equally accomplished in both contexts.

Group Processes

Several studies in the organizational context have demonstrated that groups using new communication technologies solve problems and reach decisions in significantly less time than face-to-face groups. In addition, group member participation tends to be greater and more equally distributed among members in mediated communication versus face-to-face interaction. Also, it is much easier for one or two group members to dominate the group in face-to-face discussion, whereas when communicating using technology such as listservs and discussion boards, lengthy posts can simply be deleted or ignored.

In contrast, studies conducted in the laboratory (often using zero-history groups) found that mediated group decision making is more time consuming and less satisfying than face-to- face meetings. Group members become frustrated with response-time delays when using asynchronous forms of communication. Mediated communication is seen as less personal and more open to misunderstandings. The history that organization members have is absent from laboratory groups. Thus, laboratory groups lack the context that an organization provides and common understandings associated with organizational practices and routines.

Technology Available for Student Small Groups

Email

A number of online service companies offer free email accounts. Yahoo, Hotmail, Juno, Linux Freemail.com, and Mail.com are just a few. Although these services are free, users do have to pay a price: they must view advertisements on nearly every page. However, using a free email service can help small group members organize their email by having a particular address dedicated to the group or the class, such as jane_group1@freeemail.com.

Listservs

Listservs allow you to send email to multiple people by entering a single address. Most listservs also provide an archiving service as well as various options for structuring the listserv (e.g., moderated or unmoderated). Several free listservs are available for your use, such as Coollist, eGroups, and Topica. As with free email accounts, these free listservs are also advertiser supported. Listservs have an advantage over discussion boards and chat rooms in that email is delivered directly to members' electronic mailboxes. However, one disadvantage is that listserv email may get lost in all the other email group members receive (thatís one reason why an email address dedicated to a class or work group is useful).

Discussion Boards

Discussion boards are asynchronous web-based tools that allow you to post messages and read what others have posted. Lycos Clubs, Yahoo Clubs, Excite, and MSN Webcommunities have discussion board and chat room functions. With discussion boards, users have time to think about what to say, to compose, reflect, and edit their postings, and the posted messages may be read at any time by other group members. One advantage of discussion boards is that "threads" or discussion topics are easier to follow than when emails are sent to group members. In addition, because discussion boards are asynchronous, group members do not need to meet at a specific time. However, one drawback is that group members may neglect to visit the discussion board regularly.

Chat Rooms

Technically, chat rooms are termed Internet Relay Chat (IRC). Chat rooms are Internet-based systems for synchronous conversation in real time. Participants engage in text-based interaction that resembles the immediacy of in-person face-to-face encounters. Yahoo, eGroups, Excite, and @MyPlace.com all provide chat rooms. Most chat services offer other functions as well, such as free email, webpages, and discussion boards. Note that older computers can have trouble processing the software necessary to participate in chat rooms. Online chatting requires that participants respond immediately; they do not have much time to think about what to say or how to say it. However, chat rooms allow group members to engage in real-time discussion without needing to be in the same physical location.

Other Technologies

Newsgroups, or Usenet discussion groups, are electronic bulletin boards or forums that allow subscribers to read and post messages in thousands of specialized areas. The forums are divided by topics where individuals may post articles and comments on the topic at hand. Contributors write their comments and use automated software to post the message to the newsgroup(s). Newsgroups are often useful when researching a topic.

In MUDs (Multi User Domains), users experience virtual reality in a text-only mode via the Internet. Text description provides cues normally associated with sight, sound, and touch. When users connect to a MUD through the computer network, they are immediately provided with a textual description of the MUD's virtual environment. Once inside the virtual world, through reading descriptions and entering simple commands, participants can wander around and experience the sensation of adventure and creation. They can communicate, cooperate on adventures, or fight against each other. They can create new objects and build castles of their own by composing and storing textual descriptions, or they can alter or destroy artifacts built by somebody else. MUDs are especially useful for promoting creativity in small group decision making.

Characteristics of New Communication Technologies in Small Groups

Mediated Communication is Public:
Although you may think that email you're sending to one person in your group is private and confidential, the receiver can forward on your email to others with the click of a mouse. Write email and posts that won't embarrass you if others who are not your intended recipients read your messages. Videotapes can also become public, as several celebrities have found out. Chat rooms typically do not produce a permanent record, and you can set up chat rooms that are invitation only. Nonetheless, when interacting with group members via mediated channels, keep in mind that others may hear or see those messages.

Mediated Communication is Forever:
Unless we record face-to-face interactions on audio or videotape, such interactions are transitory. In contrast, mediated communication is typically archived in some way. This can be an advantage for small groups because group members can easily access past discussions. This can be a disadvantage if group members prefer to forget some of their remarks or if people outside the group access information that was supposed to be restricted to the group.

Mediated Communication is a Tool:
Using new communication technologies such as listservs, videoconferencing, discussion boards, and email will not solve a group's problems. These technologies are simply tools that group members can use to communicate with each other and those outside the group.

Netiquette

It's likely that Internet tools will provide most of the mediated communication in which your group engages. Netiquette refers to etiquette on the Internet. The guidelines below generally apply to email, listservs, chat rooms, and discussion boards.

  1. Read messages carefully to make sure that you understand them.

  2. Carefully read what you send in order to reduce misunderstandings

  3. Label humor or sarcasm clearly. One method for this is using emoticons, such as 8) ;-) :-)

  4. Know your audience. Make sure that the people to whom you are sending your message are members of your intended audience.

  5. Be patient with people new to listservs, discussion boards, email, and other communication technologies.

  6. Keep messages as straight-forward and concise as possible. Recipients may hit the "delete" button if they see a lengthy, cluttered, and unclear message.

  7. Quote relevant parts of a message to which you are responding so the original sender (or others who may read the email) understands the context of your response.

  8. Make sure your name and the message's subject are included.

  9. Focus on one topic in each message. If you try to cover multiple topics, some of your points may be missed.

  10. Type in lowercase. Uppercase means that you're SHOUTING.

  11. Keep in mind that for many Internet users, and possibly members of your small group, English is not their first language. Ask senders for clarification before making judgments and jumping to conclusions.


For additional information on Netiquette, see:

Chat Netiquette
http://www.geocities.com/SouthBeach/Breakers/5257/Chatet.htm
Etiquette for communicating in chat rooms. Includes a helpful list of chat abbreviations that are also common in email and discussion board posts.

Dark Mountain's Netiquette Guide
http://www.darkmountain.com/netiquette/index.shtml
More comprehensive than most guides because Dark Mountain addresses Group Netiquette, International Netiquette, Bandwidth Netiquette, as well as more traditional Netiquette issues.

How to Write a Good Newsgroup Message
http://www.gweep.bc.ca/~edmonds/usenet/good-newgroup.html
A bit on the technical side, but useful if you're new to newsgroups and want to participate.

Netiquette
http://www.glowworms.com/~vez/neti.html
A helpful list of Internet communication do's and don'ts written in an engaging style. Special attention to flaming and how to avoid it.

Netiquette Home Page
http://www.albion.com/netiquette/
Includes the core rules of Netiquette, Business Netiquette, and a Netiquette quiz.

Netiquette Sites Webring
http://www.webring.org/cgi-bin/webring?ring=netiquette;list
The list is short, but includes sites you might want to explore, such as Netiquette cartoons.

On Netiquette
http://songweaver.com/netiquette.html
Discusses Netiquette issues in alphabetical order, beginning with "Binary Attachments" and ending with "Virus Alerts."

Online Small Group Work

Coordinating group work online is both similar to and different from coordinating group work face-to-face. Online small group work takes more self-motivation yet also allows for greater flexibility than face-to-face small group work. The guidelines below should facilitate your online work in small groups.

Be organized:
Effective organization is at the heart of online small group work. Identify key group roles that must be fulfilled (e.g., secretary/recorder, meeting organizer, discussion leader, liaison with those outside the group, technical specialist) and group members who can best fulfill those roles. Do not wait for someone to spontaneously take the lead and email other group members. Without the immediacy of face-to-face communication, it is too easy to avoid communication. Identify a communication coordinator early in the project who will instigate interaction and keep the group on track.

Be prompt:
Respond in a timely manner to group member emails and discussion board posts. Check and respond to email and discussion boards frequently (at least once each day). The volume of messages can be overwhelming if you are online only infrequently. Treat chat room meetings as you would a face-to-face meeting: Arrive on time and don't leave early.

Be polite:
Request rather than demand; compliment rather than reprimand; ask rather than assume; thank rather than take for granted; help rather than hinder. Objectifying others can be easier in online interactions than when meeting group members face-to-face. You should apply the same rules of civility and politeness to online small group interactions as you would in face-to-face encounters. Although we generally focus on the task aspects of group work, productive relationships among group members are essential to effective task accomplishment.

Be accountable:
Group members must identify the tasks that the group needs to accomplish to achieve its goal, then determine how best to assign those tasks. Group members should be rewarded for effectively completing tasks and held accountable for lack of task completion. Do your fair share of the workload in all aspects of the group's work. Offer to take on tasks and perform them to the best of your ability. Take credit for your work as well as giving credit for others' contributions.

Be flexible:
Even the best plans can go awry. Particularly when depending on technology, group members must be prepared for possible problems. For example, the Love Bug virus recently shut down servers and email programs around the world. Planning ahead and building in some flexibility (e.g., completing the final report a few days before the deadline) will allow the group to adapt to unusual and unforeseeable circumstances.

REFERENCES

Althaus, S. (1997). Computer-mediated communication in the university classroom: An experiment with online discussion. Communication Education, 46, 158-174.

Bordia, P. (1997). Face-to-face versus computer-mediated communication. The Journal of Business Communication, 34, 99-120.

Brandon, D., & Hollingshead, A. (1999). Collaborative learning and computer-supported groups. Communication Education, 48, 109-126.

Kindred, J. (2000, April). Thinking about the online classroom: Evaluating the "ideal" versus the "real." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Central States Communication Association, Detroit. Available at:

Mele, C. (1999). Cyberspace and disadvantaged communities: The Internet as a tool for collective action. In M. Smith & P. Kollock (Eds.), Communities in cyberspace (pp. 290-310). London: Routledge.

Olaniran, B. (1994) Group performance in computer-mediated and face-to-face communication media. Management Communication Quarterly, 7, 256-281.

Scott, C. R. (1999). Communication technology and group communication. In L. Frey, D. Gouran, & M. Poole (Eds.), The handbook of group communication & research (pp. 432-472). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

ADDITIONAL READING

Davis, B., & Brewer, J. (1997). Electronic discourse: Linguistic individuals in virtual space. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Gralla, P., Ishida, S., Reimer, M., & Adams, S. (1999). How the Internet works : Millennium edition. Que Corp

Rakow, L. (1999). The public at the table: From public access to public participation. New Media & Society, 1, 74-82.

Robins, K. (1999). New media and knowledge. New Media & Society, 1, 18-24.

Smith, M. & Kollock, P. (Eds.) (1999). Communities in cyberspace. London: Routledge.

ADDITIONAL ONLINE RESOURCES

A Guide to Internet Chat
http://Best-of-Web.com/entertainment/chat.shtml
Brought to you by the Best-of-Web folks, the site includes links to background information on chat rooms, frequently asked questions, a chat room directory, and gaming information.

Mary Houten-Kemp's Everything Email
http://www.everythingemail.net/
Although the advertisements can get annoying, the site does contain useful information on how to write email, email jargon, how to find email addresses, and other email-related topics.


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