E Pluribus Unum

This post is not about flowers, I promise! Do you know what happens to orchids when you water them too much or too little? They die! I know it because I no longer have orchids. I do have an online group though. With online groups it may be the same. As a facilitator you really have to find a (water) balance because, you can always buy another flower but you cannot buy another group experience after the course ends.

We are reaching the end of the ONL171 and the reason I am writing here is because my group is currently struggling with the concept of collaboration and I need to find a way to express myself in a professional way about the feelings of frustrations that we all experience right now.

Due to the tone of some posts in the common google+ site, I believed that some group members were frustrated. Maybe because the group participation is not even, or due to poor meeting attendance, task disagreement and small misunderstandings.

Frustrations are expected and normal during online work. We’ve discussed that beefore. However, the way we let out our frustrations and communicate with each other is another matter. My question is what I’m going to do as co-facilitator to improve the group climate? Especially when I am frustrated too? I noticed that some group members need emotional attention while some others need concrete action and structure. I try to fulfill both but sometimes it may not be enough or it could get overwhelming. I want to help and contribute but I don’t want to take over the group activities and decide too much when the group is expected to gain independency. Then I decided that I could, actually, help in other ways and this is what I am trying to do here. I am reflecting about what causes all of these feelings in my group and in me.

What I see right now is that

Personal expectations from this course vs. our expectations from other group members are colliding.

When we enrolled the course we all had individual expectations and goals. Revisiting our first padlet I could read about almost everyone’s expectations and fears which I summarize in this cloud

Expectations cloud PBL5

Strikingly, we share a lot of interests and have quite similar professional backgrounds. We all are related to education. The words develop, learn and education stand out. We all want to learn and to develop new skills and to become more competent educators. Lack of time was a common fear.

However, the word Collaboration is nowhere to be seen in this cloud. The thing is that when we enrolled in this course we thought about our own expectations and maybe wondered: will this course meet my expectations? But we didn’t think much about meeting someone else’s expectations. We integrated into groups and we worked together but we didn’t really understand what this implies. 

Working in a team has different meanings for different people. If we are working together we need to set clear ground rules from the beginning and revisit them from time to time following the group progression. We need to be clear with each other and to be prepared to work asynchronously when we miss the face-to-face meetings. We need to trust each other, be patient with each other and to use a proper language. We can still be open and honest but we need to know how to address each other. No everyone appreciate jokes or understand them in the same way. Be prepared to apologize when need it. I personally believe that often the misunderstanding that happens in a group are not personal but we can make it personal if we don’t stop for a minute to reflect what is going on with a person or within a group.

The word col-laboration means working together toward the same goal. Sometimes we have a strong interest or a coming deadline and our collaborators are not working at our pace or do not share our particular goal. What to do? Shall we run over and do everything by ourselves? Well this is a tricky question. People will probably appreciate us when we do that but they can also hate us for taking all the work and not giving space. In my opinion, this is not good for the development of a collaborative team.

 We have certainly discussed the differences between cooperation and collaboration but did we really understand how to achieve collaboration? A real collaboration? E Pluribus Unum: out of many, one.  Well, maybe not and there is no one to be blamed. To Collaborate is not that easy and it could take more than 11 weeks to develop. Some groups manage to do it and some groups don’t (Susan A. Wheelan’s book “Creating effective teams. A guide for members and leaders”). Team members do not develop at the same time. The important thing is to reflect about it and to expose the factors that contributed to success or failure. This is something that we can take with us for the future and turn it into something positive.


Other sources of frustrations that I am seeing in my group are:

Unstable meeting attendance combined with too little asynchronous work or comments to each other in common spaces.

It is not only that people is not attending meetings but that they are not warning for this. People leave sometimes before the meeting is over. It is important to take clear notes during meetings and publish them in the common spaces so everyone is on the same page. Talk to each other in common spaces, ask questions, be active and show interest. Participate in google docs if that is the designed tool for asynchronous work. Be aware that not everyone will have time to read and comment if we are using different tools than the common google doc. Decide on one common place from the beginning. You can still create your blog or padlet but don’t forget to add in the designed common space.

Poor time availability

We all have too little time and thousand other tasks beside this course: family, students, travel, other job duties…therefore we need to prioritize, to commit and to respect our common agreements in order to avoid stress and finding ourselves working alone when deadlines are coming.


Our common course language is English. However, this is not the native language for everybody. Sometimes we do misunderstand each other. Maybe due to language barrier? Unclear instructions? I think we need to be better at asking questions and interacting more asynchronously if we cannot make it to the meeting. As a facilitator I could make sure that notes are posted after every meeting and that everyone verbally summarizes the take-home message from the meeting.

Dropout causing group instability

That is something that leave us powerless if we cannot prevent the dropout. Especially if we are not so many in the group. Be prepared to accept that with less people the workload will be heavier on the remaining. As a facilitator we may be little more active and help more with the group work but not to take over.

Cognition more than metacognition

I’ve noticed that people gets annoyed when you say: let’s talk about what is happening in this group or about the learning process. This is a non-task related issue to many. This course is very intensive, people have little time and are very focused in achieving results and meeting the course deadlines. I KNOW. However, as a facilitator, my task is to stop the process and deal with frustrations and encourage the metacognitive process when needed. Talk not only about pedagogical issues but also about emotional issues. From my previous experience we know that the emotional component is important to establish the right group climate.

Can we prevent?

I have been watching the group process and trying to discuss these issues from time to time. However, as a good friend said to me, you cannot fight nonexistent problems. In Swedish it is called att måla fan på vägen or to paint the devil on the wall. Conflicts should be addressed when they appear. The things said at the beginning of the course risk to be forgotten very quickly when so much is going on.

What I could do is to introduce a topic and discussion about collaborative work earlier or to introduce these questions during the group presentation?

What do you expect from the course?

What do you expect from the facilitator?

What do you expect from each other?

What is collaboration?

And when the facilitator gets frustrated? How to show feelings in a professional way? Is the facilitator a poker player? A robot? Certainly not! We can be mad sometimes and dislike certain behaviors (Thanks Francisca Frenks for kind advise).

What I think I can do is to be firm, honest and fearless and try to face and solve the conflicts. Here are some of my strategies to cope in a professional way with difficult situations:

Don’t take it personal. Take it as an opportunity to grow and gain experience

Before reacting, talk to other facilitators or mentors 

Read  and write about what is bothering you

Go back and discuss to the group.

If you are a group member you can also do the same. Talk to someone. Talk to your facilitator.

I guess that there is more to be said but I really like you to add your own experiences, advise and feedback.


And as I promised, this post was not about flowers. Actually it is about my group trying to bloom and me trying to help them to burst. 

All images were taken from pixabay and are under CC0 license.

12 thoughts on “E Pluribus Unum

  1. Gizeh, thank you for sharing your blog post. I’ve really appreciated your honesty and I must say the experience of this course has been interesting to me, most worthwhile and made me realise all the dynamics that one should be aware of whether you are a student or an instructor. The learning design of this course is so fascinating to me and I’ve learned alot about being involved in a space such as this. Thank you for making me think more about what we are doing and for your support in this course. I’ve appreciated your positive approach and encouragement.


  2. Hi Gizeh, I appreciate your honesty, though the misunderstanding of time on monday was actually in my point of view something good!

    Good in the sense that we discussed the emotions and frustrations in the group (even though there were only four of us). First we had a long discussion o the frustrations, but in this we also came to conclusions on how important it is to agree on the same terms, that is for everyone to understand the importance of attending meetings, and when this is not possible tell in advance. Something that we have all learnt “the hard way”. My feeling is that the amount of work has been unevenly distributed, whether or not you can achieve a true collaborate work even though I do not know, but in my eyes we have partly succeeded with this.

    I was not able to attend the first meeting and I tried to catch up after this but it is not until the end of the course that I really understand how important ground rules are, and in this case I think both the facilitator and co-facilitator can help. The most important part here is to make the participants understand this. I have a scientific background I am used to structure my work and in this setting I lacked the structure.

    Lastly I would like to add that the idea of introducing collaborative work earier is good!

    I have several orchids by the way, you can forget them and when you done that long enough they start to flower (like its their last chance) so you then remember to water them, they will live for another two months! (I have one that I got 10 years ago… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think all what you describe is correct and relevant to the existing problems in our PBL5. In my opinion, we are completely lacking a structure and organization in the group. That is very frustrating. I was always afraid of online learning because if you don’t find a balance between learning activities and learning outcomes, it can provoke a surface learning. I personally think that we did not go very deeply in any topic. We are several participants in the group, but the output is like from one very active working person. The time which we use on absolutely non-active participants (e.g. Ira) can be used for something more useful in our group. I know that also in the real classroom you have dropouts and you have to deal with it, but in our group, which is small, the dropout of members makes it to feel as a large lost. Another point is that when facilitators are not there, then we are at the peak of our production which is a paradox for me and could potentially mean that the chemistry of the group members is the same, but quite different from the chemistry of our facilitators. It has nothing to do that you are doing a bad job, but the chemistry is different…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Anna, I really appreciate your honesty, your valuable work in the group meetings. I totally understand your points. What I find most difficult is to find a balance that suits everybody in the group. The course is intense and fast paced. This together with people coming and going have a huge impact in the dynamics of the group. Together with technological difficulties and delays in communication. I understand that when we met you wanted to be more result-oriented and go straight away into discussing pedagogy or how to tackle the topic. I was the same in my previous PBL group. However, in parallel to the task there are some other things going on such as how to work together? How to behave with each other? Etc. I think the time we spent with I. was very useful. Sadly, she realized that she had to leave the course but while she was there I could not simply ignore her contribution as you can understand. When facilitators are not there maybe the group focused more into how to get the presentation done. When facilitators are there we have to stop sometimes to reflect about things that we can see better from the outside. This is natural because we are not so super involved in achieving a particular results. Results for me, besides a well done presentation, is a happy and active group where all the group members feel included. Even the “possible” drop outs. This is my role as facilitator. However, I am very thankful for you pointing out this issue and I am already thinking how to improve! I will need to align my personal goals with the group goals and tell the group from the beginning about the ground rules and the “netiquette”.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Collaboration is a literacy that needs to be learned and this takes much longer than 10 weeks for most people if they are not already fluent at it. I don’t think this is an issue only for online courses because campus groups are far from friction-free. It’s about group dynamics and creating that sense of common purpose and community that Gilly Salmon demonstrates so well.
    If you start ONL in educational consumer mode you will very quickly get frustrated and most people today still see education as consumption of content rather than an active process. I think the clash between consumers and producers is a major source of conflict in groups.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, here it is, I found your comment at last 😀 yes, Alastair, I agree. For me this is a new perspective: education in producer mode rather than consumer. This is the clash that we often face when dealing with PBL. Problem based learning demans a lot of self discipline and responsibility. Meanwhile the students often demand instruction, structure and clear rules. Maybe one thing is not against the other? I just need to figure out where the balance is.


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