Obstacles to Cohesiveness among Online Faculty
Fostering faculty cohesiveness can be challenging in the traditional, face-to-face setting, but the complications are multiplied in the online environment, where the geographic and emotional disconnect can be difficult to bridge.
Jackie Booth, of Keiser University, is engaged in research about building cohesion among online faculty, a group that she calls “a far-flung network of people with a common goal.”
Booth and her colleagues discovered several issues that impact the process of building a group of online faculty members who work together well.
- Online communication can be difficult to read:Booth is influenced by the work of Sherry Turkle, author of the popular book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. She notes that technology in some cases can get in the way of the real exchange of ideas that characterize a successful faculty.
Take, for example, the proliferation of email as a communications medium. “Email is very easy to misread,” says Booth. Without the normal face-to-face cues of communications, email can easily fail to convey the entire message. Yet one common method of lower-level collaboration is simply sending an email to a colleague without any real attempt to exchange ideas. Because this feels like communication and collegiality, faculty members may mistake this practice of sending or exchanging emails as working together. “There’s a lot more communication but less being said,” says Booth.
- A focus on students may replace the interaction among faculty members: A good faculty member feels responsible for creating a good experience for those they teach. However, some do this at the expense of developing relationships with their fellow faculty members.
Booth explains that faculty members can’t be “a scholar by themselves;” they need to collaborate and learn from each other. “Our connection to students is strong and getting stronger; it is in the collaborative group that the breakdown happens,” she says.
Booth notes that she watches advertisements universities use, and she sees a focus on students rather than faculty reflected in the marketing. Universities might trumpet that they are “geared toward student success,” but few say they are “a great place to work.” Booth explains that she would look at such information as a clue to the collegiality of the atmosphere among faculty members. “Faculty should feel the benefit of working with others.”
- Academic introverts may not naturally interact: Many academics are introverts, and some of those who choose to teach online—with the potential for working solo for long periods of time—may be the most introverted of all.
Booth cites the work of Susan Cain in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, as a valuable discussion of the contributions introverts can make to a community. However, it is very likely that these same introverts—who, classically, do not need the company of other people to recharge their batteries—won’t naturally seek out colleagues to help them process what they are experiencing in the online classroom.
Special communications obstacles
Booth also draws on research Sidika Gizir (see reference below). Gizir identified several factors called “inhibitors” that negatively impacted communication among faculty members. The most important are:
- Individualism and poor communication:Among all the inhibitors studied, the strongest relationship was found between individualism and poor communication, indicating that the more faculty members were perceived as individualistic, the less likely they were to engage in good communication. Gizir identified “the existence of insensitivity among faculty members;the feeling that faculty members donot need to communicate with each other; and the requirement of giving extra effort for communicating with other faculty members.” Gizir points to other research that suggest that academic work, by its nature, is highly individualistic and likely contributes to this relationship.
This correlates with Booth’s notion that the academic world might include many introverts who are content to work in their own world and not feel the need or wish to make the effort to communicate with others.
- Departmental atmosphere and poor communication:“A lack of conflict and the presence of team spirit and cooperation are distinguishing characteristics of cohesive climates, and members of cohesive work groups are more satisfied and possess more positive outlooks than do members of less cohesive groups,” Gizir writes. A cohesive work group is characterized by the exchange of “instructions, scientific discourse, complaints, suggestions, good ideas, bad ideas, and personal opinions.”
Again, this is emphasized in Booth’s research thus far. A cohesive work group is characterized by an exchange of ideas, not a one-way flow. It is far too easy with email and other forms of electronic communication to allow information to flow one way only or to consider a conversation complete too early.
- Lack of common goals and individualism:Lack of common goals is a key driver of individualism; in fact, divergent goals are the hallmark of academe. In addition, academic institutions are often structured to support “fragmented professionalism, and employees being a special kind of professional people characterized by a particularly high need for autonomy.”
The common insight here is that the very elements that make online education attractive for some instructors—such as the ability to work independently from their chosen geographic location—also contribute to difficulties forming a cohesive team that communicates well. An awareness of these truths will help administrators as they work with faculty to transcend the challenges of online communication and allow the rich exchange of ideas found in the face-to-face environment.
Gizir, S. (2010). Culture and communication in academia: the views of faculty members. Mediterranean Journal of Educational Studies, 15(1), 125-147.