Building successful on-line learning communities across international boundaries: a Case Study


Pat Jefferies, Frances Grodzinsky and Joe Griffin


The development of on-line learning communities across international boundaries is now a viable proposition using available asynchronous technologies. As has been reported in previous papers (Grodzinsky, Griffin & Jefferies, 2003; Griffin, Grodzinsky & Jefferies, 2003) such use has proved to be extremely valuable for supporting the teaching of computing and ethics. For example, not only does asynchronous computer conferencing offer new opportunities for students to gain valuable first-hand experience in using such technology to communicate with peers in other countries it also facilitates them gaining a more direct appreciation of the cultural, legal and ethical differences that abound. However, the setting up of successful ‘virtual’ communities with campus-based final year undergraduates based in three different countries posed a number of issues that had to be addressed prior to implementation. Prime amongst these were concerns as to how to overcome some of the perceived barriers to establishing effective groups within a text-based virtual environment across international boundaries and how to integrate use of the technology within the traditional face-to-face context of learning.

This paper will, therefore, report on how this blended approach to learning and teaching was developed and implemented using the Belbin Self-Perception Inventory (1981). This inventory asks the student to do a self-assessment and based on that to identify him/herself as a particular role type. The Self-Perception Inventory was originally developed by Dr Meredith Belbin (1981), as a consequence of research that he was undertaking into management teams. Such research led Belbin (1981) to determine that members of teams have two roles – the first one being the functional role and the second was what Belbin (1981) determined as being the Team role. In reaching his 8 classifications of team type Belbin (1981) originally used psychometric tests to relate observed team behaviour to measured psychological traits. The four principal factors isolated by these psychometric tests were – Intelligence, Dominance, Extroversion/Introversion and Stability/Anxiety. The balance of ratings an individual achieved on these four scales, plus scores on a number of subsidiary measures were then used to determine which team role he/she preferred (as well as his/her secondary preference). Each of the 8 team roles identified by Belbin (1981) were – Chairman, Shaper, Plant, Monitor/Evaluator, Company Worker, Resource Investigator, Team Worker, Finisher/Completer. Belbin (1981) gives descriptions of each of these roles that include typical features together with positive qualities and allowable weaknesses. Belbin’s (1981) research indicated that identification of these team roles, based on Intelligence, Dominance, Extroversion/Introversion and Stability/Anxiety factors, could then be used to construct balanced teams. As a consequence of this research work the Belbin (1981) Self-perception Inventory has been widely used in industry to construct management and work groups. Thus, the underpinning rationale for using this particular instrument is to try to establish effective teams by bringing together people with individual differences who have the variety of requisite skills needed for group working to see if this improves overall performance.

Some researchers do, however, feel that learning groups are of a somewhat different nature to management teams (e.g. Atherton, 2001). Whilst this may or may not be the case it was, nevertheless, felt that application of the Self-Perception Inventory would be a useful strategy to adopt for this study and would, furthermore, help students to focus on the different group roles that individuals adopt and their impact upon group dynamics. Belbin’s (1981) Self-Perception Inventory was, therefore, used to establish geographically dispersed, virtual student teams that were made up of students from the United States, UK and Ireland. Role identification became important for team creation as the students were unknown to their peers and tutors at the different sites.

This paper will, therefore, report on research undertaken into the impact that this strategy had on how the individuals actually operated within their teams in the virtual environment. It will also detail some of the findings from this case study when these perceived Belbin types were matched with transaction analysis (Wortham, 1999) and types of messages posted (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2001). Finally it will draw conclusions from the case study on the efficacy and efficiency of using profiling techniques of individuals to establish balanced learning communities and how this impacted implementation and group development. The paper will then make recommendations for future implementation of asynchronous computer conferencing within a campus-based Higher Education (HE) context.


Atherton, J S, (2002), “Learning and Teaching: Deep and Surface Learning” [On-line]: UK: Available: Accessed: 23 August 2002

Belbin, R. M. (1981) “Management Teams: Why they succeed or Fail”, Oxford: Heinemann

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., and Archer, W. (2001). “Critical thinking and computer conferencing: A model and tool to assess cognitive presence”. American Journal of Distance Education.

Griffin J., Grodzinsky, F. & Jefferies, P., (2002) “The Impact of using Computer Supported Collaborative Learning Tools on Moral Reasoning in a Multi-Institutional Computer Ethics Module” in the Proceedings ETHICOMP 2002, Lisbon, Portugal.

Grodzinsky,F., Griffin, J. & Jefferies, P., (2002) “Reinventing Collaborative Learning using Blackboard: A Web-Based Resource, In the Teaching of A Multi-Institutional Computer Ethics Module” in the Proceedings ETHICOMP 2002, Lisbon, Portugal.

Wortham, D. W., (1999). “Nodal and Matrix Analysis of Communication Patterns in Small Groups”. In Proceedings of the Computer Support for Collaborative Learning (CSCL) 1999 Conference, C. Hoadley & J. Roschelle (Eds) Dec. 12 – 15, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, Mahwah, NJ:Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.