Creative educators establish quality learning environments that allow students to engage in collaborative learning activities within their assigned groups. Such environments contribute to better learning outcomes, including development of higher order thinking skills. Students can be heterogeneous in their outlooks to collaborative activities, especially when participants of diverse cultures and attitudes are connected in computer-based courses. Under certain circumstance, the once unified group splits into factions and coalitions, emotions take the place of logic and the conflict grows generating an uncomfortable atmosphere to everyone including the instructor who find themselves frustrated after all the time and effort they devoted to plan the collaborative learning activity.

What is conflict?

Conflict is any statement of disagreement that creates discomfort and disaffection, feeling disconnected from or misplaced among team members. It may hinder the effectiveness of the group, leading to the reduction of group satisfaction. Although conflict usually relates to problems between group members, it may happen between groups.

Recent studies denote that not all conflicts are detrimental and even went farther to say that a certain degree of conflict is essential, otherwise, the point of bringing people in a team with different perspectives and expertise is lost. When members of the group gain practice in dealing with conflict, their perceptions of conflict evolve, and this particular conflict then serves to enrich the collaborative tasks by encouraging team members to consider different points of view and to provide sound rationales for their arguments. However, when the level of conflict is extreme, sabotage and violence can appear within the group. Furthermore, members who do not learn how to handle conflicts may endanger people’s life as they go the work field (for example, interprofessional disagreements in the health sector).

Why do conflicts happen in groups?

  • Lack of students’ training on skills of communication and mutual work.
  • Personal conflicts that are rooted in basic differences in attitudes, perspectives, etc.
  • Underestimation of the academic knowledge of group members and perceiving that peer-to-peer interactions take away from the time that could be employed in hearing from the professor.
  • Difficulties in using technology to support collaboration.
  • Frustration from previous negative experience of teamwork.
  • Online learners may perceive teamwork as an impediment to their progress and may find it difficult to organise their time with other members, as they originally chose to join a more flexible online course that suit their individual time.

How do individuals respond to conflicts?

Five common approaches or strategies to conflict resolution have been described in the literature:

(1) Competition: is a situation in which one person or group attempts to acquire complete dominance. This strategy is appropriate when quick decisions are vital, such as in an emergency. However, it leads to winners and losers.

(2) Avoidance: is a state of denial. Although there is no active resolution of the conflict through this behaviour, avoiding a situation until more information is gained could be an adequate approach of handling conflict at short-term.

(3) Accommodation or giving in: refers to the conciliation that occurs when one person or group is willing to yield to the other. As it encourages people to express themselves, it produces an agreeable relationship between both parties.

(4) Compromise: emerges when negotiation happens and each person gets something but gives something else up in the process.

(5) Collaboration: arise when each person or group meets the problem with equal concern. This method encourages recognising areas of agreement and disagreement and helps in selecting the convenient solution to all partners. This is a win–win orientation. It will indeed require the most time to resolve the conflict, but it is the most rewarding.

Conflicts within Learning Collaborative Groups