Roles and Responsibilities During Online Collaboration: the Student

Palloff and Pratt (2005) see conflict management as inseparable from all other effective functions of an online group: in fact, well functioning online groups should expect and be able to deal with "a reasonable degree of chaos and conflict" (pp. 16-17). Managing that conflict is a necessary skill in building an online learning community ... and instructors can't assume that students participating in an online collaborative project will know how to do this effectively without guidelines.

From a learning module for Rhetoric and the WWW, designed to prepare students for managing conflict in an online team:

Deal with conflict productively.

At some point along the way, there may be at least some mild conflict or disagreement related to a task or process (especially as deadlines draw near). Don't be afraid of some disagreement or differences of perspective, for within reason they're not only be productive but necessary. If you're concerned about whether a disagreement or difference is moving past a reasonable point, don't avoid the issue, and do try to work it out within the team.

Here are some communication strategies to keep in mind:

Address the issue in a clear manner without accusatory language. Keep the tone of your posting supportive; use humour whenever appropriate. If a team-mate posts something that seems blunt or negative to you, or if anything about the message makes you feel defensive, anxious, or angry, take some time out before replying. Keep your response friendly and calm, and ask follow-up questions to make sure you've understood the message correctly.

... a little conflict will help the group re-examine opinions, share diverse ideas and discuss creative solutions; some virtual teams enforce a rule that if one team member has a conflict with another, it can’t be dealt with electronically — one person phones the other or they meet in person.
Source: University of Victoria Distance Education Services

One way to help defuse unproductive conflict and keep morale high is to think of creative ways to let off steam. For example, in your "code of ethics", you might all agree it's okay for everyone to post or PM [private message] one really good rant if necessary. A favourite rant-target is technology/software. I don't recommend posting rants about specific people.

EXERCISE REASONABLE CAUTION: Even though your team forum is an informal space, please remember that it's still an academic setting and that you're bound by the University of Winnipeg's policies on non-academic misconduct. This includes all forms of harassment.

It's unlikely, but it could happen that you try all these strategies to resolve a conflict within the team but are not successful. In that case, do ask your instructor and/or TA for help.

These guidelines roughly reflect suggestions from Palloff and Pratt (2005, p. 34) to (1) let the team members try to deal with the conflict amongst themselves, and then (2) if that doesn't work, ask a team representative to alert the instructor. It's difficult to know whether an instructor should err on the side of less intervention or more. Too little, and a team may lose direction and break apart. Too much, and an instructor may rob students of an invaluable (if harrowing) opportunity to work through the conflict themselves and learn from the experience. As Palloff and Pratt point out, "The instructor needs to feel comfortable truly turning over the reigns [sic] in the learning process in order for collaboration to be successful" (p. 36).

I would like to think that the use of "reigns" instead of "reins" is a Freudian slip for a good cause: reminding instructors that they need to relinquish control over students as part of the collaborative process.


Palloff, R.M., & Pratt, K. (2005). Collaborating online: Learning together in community. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.