Connected by a group project in an online class, four classmates in the master’s in adult and community education program became the best of friends after graduating in-person on campus at commencement. Joining the graduation reunion was Dr. Ruby Cain, assistant professor, director/advisor for the adult and community education program, and professor of the students’ Psychology of Adult Adjustment class.
Cain says it was the first time she knew of four students from four different states–DeWanna Hamlin from North Carolina, Michelle Carde from New York, Lamaiya Lancaster from Illinois, and Dan Ward from Indiana—establishing such strong and lasting rapport.
“It’s difficult to define, but this group was special due to our unique personalities and backgrounds,” says Hamlin. “We were willing to learn from each other; we had a Caucasian male and three females—one Latina, and two African-Americans with diverse multicultural backgrounds—one from the South (me) and another who had traveled extensively.”
Q: Dr. Cain, how did you see their relationship benefiting them in this class, and, students, what were the benefits for you?
Dr. Cain: They developed a model of effective team development, which provided maximum efficacy and productivity in collaborative learning and group assignment completion. They developed a model that worked for them and provided them with skills that could be used in future courses.
Michelle Carde: I’ve taken online courses several times prior to taking classes at Ball State but nothing provided this magnitude of classroom interaction. It was comforting to know I had a team I could reach out to to discuss my own learning development, ask questions, and grow from everyone’s unique experiences.
DeWanna Hamlin: This group, for me, was the most rewarding group experience of my graduate program. There was an undefinable synergy between us: we developed trust, positive regard for each other, respect for the individual perspectives, and we each held an optimism for the group and championed our individual lived experiences.
Dan Ward: On numerous occasions we met through online chat and email to discuss aspects of projects that were unclear to some of us, or simply to bounce an idea off each other. In several instances, we shared the same idea and would have never followed through without knowing the others were thinking the same thing! The communication we developed as a group led to completed projects that were very cohesive and were truly a group effort.
Lamaiya Lancaster: My three group members and I worked well to create a community of learning within the course. This included weekly online chats, which were incredibly helpful when dealing with upcoming assignments. However, continuing these weekly, regardless of upcoming deadlines, was an integral part of us connecting as individuals and as group members.
Q: Dr. Cain, what did you mean when you said the groups “begin by establishing rules of engagement and group norms”? How did this work out at the student level?
Dr. Cain: All small groups are required to establish rules of engagement and group norms. In week 1, they must spend time getting to know each other; determine how to move beyond just managing conflict to transforming conflict and achieving high level of productivity and performance; and develop group norms.
DeWanna Hamlin: We were organized and, of course, everything was time sensitive, but we were also flexible and open. The key goal, most importantly, is to assign tasks and get the work completed. Without relationship and rapport, there can be nightmares to that path. I have very high expectations of the group experience because of this experience.
Q: How often do you see relationships like this in your online classes, Dr. Cain? Students, how important was this to you and to your future?
Dr. Cain: I have seen many instances of two students connecting and maintaining contact with each other beyond the classroom. This is the first time that I have seen—or at least been aware of—four students who all lived in different states establishing such a strong and long-lasting bond.
DeWanna Hamlin: Each assignment, discussion, project, was an excellent effort because of the dynamics of our team. We each brought our humor as well as the expertise to the discussions. We even had a virtual Halloween event thread in the discussion as if we were face to face: someone thought of music, the other, decorations, another, candy corn and Snickers, etc.
Dan Ward: My work schedule has never allowed me the opportunity to attend brick-and-mortar classes, and online classes allowed me to attend the school of my choosing regardless of location. To achieve my career goals, I needed a graduate degree. Attending online allowed me to achieve this in a timely fashion.
Q: Dr. Cain, what is it you ultimately want the students to take away from the group experience? Students, what were the take aways for you?
Dr. Cain: In addition to the objectives of the course, I want students to learn, practice, and develop skills that senior executives identify as three of the top skills they seek in employees: 1) teamwork in diverse groups (with more global companies, the teamwork is often done virtually); 2) thinking clearly about complex problems; and 3) effective problem analysis leading to workable solutions
DeWanna Hamlin: I am more open to team collaboration because of my graduate experience as a whole. It taught me to take critiques and discussion of varying perspectives less personally and to set aside my agenda and priorities to listen with a more open heart and mind. There was a thread of compassionate empathy that wove our relationship together based on our personal lives.
Dan Ward: For me, this group experience completely redefined and reaffirmed what teamwork should and could be. First is the communication aspect: we not only talked about projects we were involved in, but we dropped occasional notes to see how the others were doing and offered encouragement during stressful periods. We provided validation for each other, first as classmates, then as friends.
Michelle Carde: When you think of online classes, you first think: “How am I going to accomplish this outside of a classroom?” The curricula and projects allow you to step out of the “online” perception and make you feel like you are right back in the classroom. I’ve taken online courses at another university before but my learning truly started at Ball State when I was able to connect with my peers and professor.
Q: Is there anything you can say, Dr. Cain, about the relationships built in your in-person classes versus online classes? Students, how have your relationships continued?
Dr. Cain: Teaching in-person courses provides more opportunities for the students to bond, build trust, and work collaboratively. In the online, asynchronous environment, we must be far more intentional in how we design the course to achieve the same results. Many perceive online courses as independent study, rather than another modality to achieve what is done in the in-person classroom. We have the technology that allows us to create an interactive and collaborative environment. It is much more time intensive, but well worth the effort.
DeWanna Hamlin: We still text from time to time since graduation, much less so than when we were in the program. However, I sense that we will still maintain contact, always.
Dan Ward: I still talk to group members about career decisions (i.e. where are you going with your degree?), and getting their feedback gives me some additional insight into situations and problems I see in my workplace and career. Their advice is invaluable.
Lamaiya Lancaster: Our continued communication not only helped with our ability to excel at our course work but also allowed us to create friendships that we still maintain until this day.