Conflicts online

Student life is what it is. It involves friendship, parties, teamwork, hard work, exams, papers, success, failure and occasionally conflicts. The student lifestyle is often an economical struggle. You don’t have a lot of extra money to spend in the end of the month. You try to work some extra but it most often make you lose focus on preparing for exams and doing your share of the team project.

Covid-19 changed most of what we know as student life. Suddenly students can’t meet in real life. They can’t join classes and dine together with friends afterwards. They can’t work extra because no one has extra work to offer. Most activities happen online. How do you learn online? How do you keep friends online? How do you get through student group work online and hand in a joint assignment? How do you maintain trust and avoid conflicts? Many questions without good answers.

Two researchers at the University of Borås, Sweden, made a survey among the students. They wanted to find out how well student groups worked in 2019 and compare that with how well they worked during 2020 after all campus based programs went online in the middle of march.

The overall results are suggesting that nothing really has changed. Even if it is different, and sometimes harder, to communicate online the number of conflicts and the difficulty stayed the same as the year before. If anything had changed, it was to the better in 2020. The differences were very small and at best on the edge of being statistically significant.

One finding of interest was that the student groups that experienced difficult conflicts during 2020 could connect them to disagreements regarding how to implement joint activities and to handle division of labor. How to proceed with the assignment was one key. The more trouble they had with the process the worse the conflict became. This correlation was found also in 2019 but it was stronger in 2020. Can it be related to trust issues and communication difficulties?

Students that said that they had difficulties to maintain trust in the student groups also had problems with the group process and with more challenging conflicts. Trust issues can definitely be connected. So what about communication? It was not part of the study in a straightforward way but it has to be underlying the ability to maintain trust.

A strong suggestion is that those who experienced difficult conflicts also had problems with their internal group communication online while those who did better in 2020 compared to 2019 actually communicated well online. There are two indications (not statistically significant but still noticeable):

  1. Younger students seem to be more comfortable communicating online and may have found ways to be effective in their communication.
  2. Students that have previous experience of online education have in turn experienced fewer destructive (difficult) conflicts the last two years.

There may be several other factors behind the success and failure of student groups when they perform teamwork online. These two are at least potential reasons why some are doing fine while others are struggling. Other factors may be how well the group members knew each other before march 2020 and how much experience they had of constructive conflict resolution.

We can learn that the life as a student in an online education needs to be focused on effective online communication when performing group assignments and that trust is a key to groups that work well.

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