Roles and Responsibilities During Online Collaboration: the Student

Buy-in: forming teams based on interests

For team-formation in Rhetoric and the WWW, an upper-level undergraduate course, several stages occur. In Week 1, students post personal introductions indicating their areas of expertise and issues that interest them. During Weeks 2 - 4, students post responses to course readings (and respond to each others' posts). In Week 4, students use a team selection forum to indicate their interest in one or two of a roster of topics provided as part of the collaborative assignment preparation. The teams form based on these interests, the instructor "placing" students only when absolutely necessary.

Student comment:
Because we were able to choose our own teams and team topic, I found working on this project to be a positive experience.... We all agreed that this was a topic that interested us, so collaboration on this project worked well.
~Dina Beaucage

Student comment:
Overall this team project was a positive experience because different perspectives/interests could be explored to the fullest. However, this meant the project didn't always flow as well as it should have, in order to include everyone's topics.
~Jani Sorensen

Team-Building: requiring teams to collaborate on a set of ethical principles governing their team's process

For Rhetoric and the WWW (as well as for two previous online writing courses), I require a Code of Ethics. In the past (esp. for technical communication) this assignment has also included a Work-Plan. Within a week after they've formed into teams, the students' first task (a "low stakes" writing assignment typically worth 5 - 10%) is to collaborate on a 1 - 2 page document that spells out agreed-upon principles and practices concerning commitment to the project, availability, alternative contact info, regular communication, each team member's strengths, commitment to being supportive, realistic goals and expectations, and agreements on how to deal with conflict or with team members who don't pull their weight.

From Rhetoric and the WWW-- "Guidelines for teams: collaborating on your team's Code of Ethics"
    • make a list of strengths you, as an individual, believe you can contribute to your team
    • note down what you expect from other team members
    • post your strengths and expectations in your team forum
    • from these postings, suggest a common set of team goals, expectations, and commitments--and make sure to keep them realistic. Click here to download sample "codes of ethics**"** (PDF)
    • by [the assignment deadline] post the final version in your forum as a single set of guidelines to which everyone can refer.

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Why go through this exercise?

In a successful collaboration,
•no one person becomes (or should become) "THE leader" or "the one who does everything." Leadership doesn't mean that one person takes charge and tells everyone what to do!
•all team members share various leadership roles to a greater or lesser degree, depending on your strengths... as facilitator, organizer, problem-solver, clarifier, initiator, nurturer, coach, inspirer, and mediator. Note these are interpersonal roles, functioning alongside and supporting project-oriented tasks.

In a dysfunctional group, one or two members may disengage because they feel they have little to contribute when more "active", "articulate," or "talented" members look as if they're taking over. It's important to establish right away that everyone has strengths and can make differing but equally valuable contributions. It's also important that individuals who aren't wild about working with others, who might be tempted to take over "just to make sure it gets done right," or who tend to micromanage all processes STEP BACK and TRUST the group. Working out ground-rules and principles ahead of time will help prevent dysfunction and make working together a positive experience.

Palloff and Pratt (2005) underline the "significant importance" of "team charters" or "agreements" in "promoting learner satisfaction with collaborative learning experiences online" (p. 27) and confirm the usefulness of completing this assignment fairly early in the life of the collaborative project.

Student comment:
Keep up the code of ethics as part of this assignment, I think [it] helps reassure people that you and everyone else is aware of the difficulties of group work and that we all need to be open and honest about what we expect from each other.

Palloff and Pratt also suggest that a "team charter" should not only articulate interpersonal interactions and team members' roles (along the lines of the Code of Ethics above) but also establish some practical "benchmarks and deadlines" (p. 27). This, the Rhetoric and the WWW Code of Ethics did not address. The two student comments below suggest that student teams should consider more practical, task-oriented issues when compiling their Code:

Student comment:
Because one of our code of ethics was to share the workload and not have anyone be overbearing, this resulted in some hesitancy to have someone rally up the team and ask “Okay, so what is our research question? Who wants to do what?”

Student comment:
I suggest that all portions of the [collaborative assignment] be delegated in the early stages of the project; the team formation stage would be ideal. Although we did a code of ethics I feel we should have gone a step further and assigned/picked specific roles.

In response to these comments and a couple more like it, I would now recommend asking students to submit a practical work-plan (topic and research question, workload distribution, preliminary time-lines for major tasks)--but not until a week or so after they submit the Code of Ethics. The principles and practices governing team interactions, conflict management, and leadership roles require thinking on an interpersonal, process level; whereas benchmarks, work distribution, and time-lines require project or task-oriented thinking best accomplished once the team has jelled a bit.


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