Educational Technology & Society 3(3) 2000
ISSN 1436-4522

Role of Contracts in Enhancing Community Building in Web Courses

Karen L. Murphy, Ed.D.
Associate Professor
Texas A&M University
Educational Psychology
College Station, TX 77843-4225, U.S.A.
Tel: +1 979 845 0987
Fax: +1 979 862 1256

Sue E. Mahoney, M.Ed.
Graduate Student
Texas A&M University
Educational Curriculum and Instruction
College Station, TX 77843-4232, U.S.A.
Tel: +1 713 932 1993
Fax: +1 713 984 0386

Tina J. Harvell, Ph.D.
Economics Instructor
Blinn College – Bryan Campus
Bryan, TX 77801, U.S.A.
Tel: +1 979 821 0408


Project-based work via telecommunications requires the instructor and the students to take explicit steps to create an on-line community that is focused on high quality learning and optimal productivity for all. This paper describes the use of group learning contracts to enhance the growth of an on-line community in project-based learning in Web courses. The paper concludes with a suggested list of responsibilities for instructors and students when engaging in project-based learning in Web courses.

Keywords: Project-based learning, On-line learning community, Group learning contract, Web courses, Collaborative learning


The Web is used both as an adjunct to face-to-face and distant-delivered instruction (Web-supported) as well as the primary mode of communication (Web-based) in higher education. The growth of Web use in higher education in the United Statesis documented in a late-1999 report showing that 54% of all college courses used e-mail, 38.9% used Web resources in the course syllabus, and 28.1% had a course web page ("The Continuing Challenge", 1999).

Capabilities of Web courses include the development of critical thinking skills (Romiszowski, 1997) and construction of multiple perspectives through problem- and project-based learning in a primarily text-based environment (Harasim, 1989; Paulsen, 1995). In addition, Web courses allow for all three forms of interaction that Moore (1989) identified: learner-content, learner-instructor, and learner-learner interaction. As the use of the Web increases in higher education, so does the need to provide students with learning experiences that allow them to develop critical thinking skills while preparing them to contribute to an increasingly complex telecommunications-oriented culture.

Both instructors and students in on-line classes may be required to adjust their current teacher-learner paradigm from one that utilizes teacher-centered instruction to one that incorporates learner-centered instruction (Harasim, 1989) with an increased emphasis on interaction. Interaction is important to allow for "socially constructed meanings from the participants' perspectives" (Vrasidas & McIsaac, 1999, p. 22). One way to address these trends is to have students develop "virtual communities" - the"social aggregations that emerge from the Net…to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace" (Rheingold, 1993, p. 9). Virtual communities can be formed through any of three categories of  telecollaboration activities via the Internet: interpersonal exchange, information collection and analysis, and problem solving (Harris, 1998). Group project-based learning in Web courses, which ideally is learner-centered and requires collaboration (Moursund, 1998), can combine all three of Harris' telecollaboration categories.

Instructors may not be prepared to teach courses on the Web before doing so. They often have inadequate or no training in teaching Web courses, and they may have been required to teach a course on the Web against their will or better judgment (Hara & Kling, 1999). In addition, like their students who were typically socialized into the traditional teacher-centered learning paradigm, instructors faced with teaching on the Web may not be ready to accept the notion of learner-centered teaching or to exploit the capabilities that Web teaching offers (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). However, instructors and their students have complementary roles and responsibilities that can develop into a positive "partnership" in Web courses.


Guiding Principles

Transitioning from the traditional to the virtual classroom challenges both instructors and students. Although some on-line classes mirror traditional teacher-centered classes, many on-line instructors are shifting to a learner-centered classroom where students are expected to participate actively in the creation of their learning paths. This shift in the classroom environment brings new issues into focus that must be addressed. According to Palloff and Pratt (1999), these issues are derived from three types of relationships: student-technology, student-instructor, and student-student relationships. Success of these relationships in a Web-based, learner-centered course depends upon identifying and overcoming any obstacles faced. Palloff and Pratt argue that flexibility in dealing with the new issues and problems inherent in this new environment is crucial to all involved. Instructors and students tackle similar and related challenges — technical difficulties, communication problems, group dynamics, and instructional and learning strategies. Three principles guide this study focusing on Web courses: 1) project-based learning can foster active learning; 2) on-line learning communities require the commitment and contributions of all participants; and 3) learning contracts can support project-based learning.


Project-based learning

To meet the needs of learners and allow them to profit directly from their learning experiences, instructors need to provide authentic activities, which are the "ordinary practices of the culture" (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989, p. 34). Such "coherent, meaningful, and purposeful activities" (p. 34) are similar to those that Romiszowski (1997) recommends for developing learners' critical thinking skills: small-group discussions, simulation games, project-based work, and collaborative problem-solving activities.

One of these activities, project-based learning, is described as learners working collaboratively over an extended period of time to solve an authentic and challenging problem that results in an end product (Fung, 1996; Moursund, 1998). Project-based activities have explicit educational goals and are typically learner-centered, rooted in constructivism, and facilitated by a teacher who acts as a facilitator and mentor. The "rich environments for active learning," in which project-based learning is likely to occur, engage learners "in a continuous collaborative process of building and reshaping understanding" (Dunlap & Grabinger, 1996, p. 67).

The literature has identified ideal characteristics and responsibilities of learners and instructors involved in project-based learning. For example, a study of British Open University students participating in project-based learning in a telecommunications environment found that the students were required to have heightened levels of self-confidence, motivation, and the ability to organize their own work plans (Fung, 1996). Through project-based learning environments, learners open themselves to critical thinking and begin to work together to solve problems. Such environments require instructor facilitation and foster incremental and continual improvement of student skills and knowledge (Moursund, 1998).


On-line Learning Communities

Palloff and Pratt (1999) asserted that to be successful in on-line courses, a sense of community needs to be developed among the group of participants.If support and participation are not forthcoming from the course members in an on-line course, there is no learning community and consequently, no on-line course (Palloff & Pratt). Berg (1999) described a virtual learning community as a "group of learners which is networked with other learners, 'knowledge media', and a facilitator all working towards the common purpose of acquiring knowledge through interdependent pursuits" (p. 25).

Basic components of a cyberspace learning community include those that the instructor facilitates and those that the students define and adopt. On-line classes often take students outside of their comfort zone unless they have previously had a successful experience. Students need time and experience to transition to the on-line classroom. The goal is to create a learning partnership between the instructor and the students that allows all participants to contribute in their own ways (Martz, 1999). All involved parties must recognize their obligations to the partnership.


Learning Contracts

Learning contracts are an accepted practice in the context of work-based learning and educational settings. A learning contract is "a formal, written agreement…about what the learner will learn and how that learning will be measured" (Boak, 1998, p. 1). According to Boak, several types of work-based learning contracts exist. The most frequently used type is a personal development plan, which is a contract comprised of the employer's evaluation and development system for a specific employee. Another type is where the employee is on temporary assignment within the organization. This learning contract is designed to structure the learning that is the primary purpose of the period of work experience. In both cases, the learning contract exists between an employee and the employer.

In educational settings, the course syllabus is the contract between the instructor and students. In addition, a learning contract, which allows the learner a choice and variation in what is to be learned, is sometimes used at the university level between an individual student and a professor. The formal nature of the written agreement between learner and instructor provides a structure to guide this learning focus (Boak, 1998). Learning contracts are well suited to project-based learning in that the learners themselves determine the path of the project.The essential features of an effective learning contract are flexibility and focus, characteristics that lend themselves to the creation of group learning contracts. Group projects support project-based learning and on-line learning communities, allowing students to strive towards a common purpose.


Research Questions

The following questions guide the inquiry into effective project-based learning within on-line communities in Web courses:

  1. How are on-line learning communities created in Web courses? 
  2. How can the use of group contracts support learning in these communities?


Research Methods

Course Synopsis

"Applications of Telecommunications in Education" is a graduate Educational Technology course that focuses on instructional applications of telecommunications at Texas A&M University (Murphy, 1999). The semester-long course is designed for teachers, administrators, technology specialists, faculty and staff in higher education, and trainers to help them apply the latest developments in telecommunications technologies to specific education or training contexts.

Three offerings of the course were Web-based: Course A was in spring 1998, Course B was in fall 1998, and Course C was in fall 1999. The syllabus, schedule, units, lectures, reading lists, forms, and a variety of resource materials were posted on the class Web site. In addition, the students had a textbook. Students used Web-based software to turn in assignments and to communicate with the instructor and with each other. Course A was taught via interactive videoconferencing and computer conferencing, and Courses B and C were both taught via the Web with a face-to-face orientation near the beginning of the semester. The students in Courses A and B used a combination of three software tools (Basic Support for Cooperative WorkTM —BSCW, WWWBoardTM, and Easy Web Group Interaction EnablerTM — EWGIE), whereas Course C used a single integrated program (FirstClassTMcomputer conferencing software) for communication. Information on these Web tools is presented in Appendix A.

The instructor designed the course for students to engage in constructivist learning through a combination of independent and collaborative activities. Although the collaborative activities were project-based and varied slightly from semester to semester, they always took place in small groups. Project groups were based on the students' ranked selections of topics. The students were advised in the syllabus that the products resulting from their project-based learning activities would be published on the Web. In addition, the syllabus stated that the group products would be carried forward to improve upon and enhance future offerings of the course.

The project-based learning assignment in Courses A and B required students to write a chapter collaboratively as part of an On-line Reader, an idea adapted from another Web-based course (Collis, 1997). Chapter themes were: (a) Teaching via Telecommunications, (b) Learning via Telecommunications, (c) Management of Telecommunications, and (d) Evaluation of Telecommunications Learning Environments. This assignment was designed to assist students with their individual telecommunications projects, to guide them through the content of the course, and to foster skills in writing and editing documents collaboratively.

Course C had two small group activities:(a) electronic group discussions and activities that the students co-facilitated, and (b) a project-based learning activity that required small groups to develop and publish a Web site based on an issue or topic critical to telecommunications in education. The reason for changing the group projects was that the Course A and B students perceived developing Web pages individually and writing a collaborative document based on research were both extremely difficult.

As a result of a variety of problems experienced in Course A, some of the students suggested having a discussion of group dynamics at the end of the semester. In that discussion, the students recommended that members of a project group develop a group learning contract at the beginning of the semester or the project. The Course A students felt that the process should optimally occur face-to-face and follow a script provided by the instructor. The purposes of such a contract would be to: a) establish common behavior guidelines; b) establish interaction and communication protocols; c) identify member roles; and d) develop contingency plans (Severn, 1998). Five Course A students acted as mentors to the students in Course B by helping develop and facilitate a full-day orientation and responding to individual questions via email and computer conference throughout that semester.

Based on the Course A students' recommendations, the first assignment for each newly created group in Courses B and C was to use a template (see Appendix B) to develop a learning contract. The groups were told to address each of the responsibilities outlined in the template, which included membership, communication, decision-making, emergencies, and changes. Once completed and posted on the Web, the contract was intended to be binding, though it could be changed by agreement of all group members. Students met face-to-face in their groups to create their contracts, a process that required approximately one hour. After completing their contracts, the groups reconvened to describe the process they used and to give an overview of the contents of their contracts. Either immediately or within a day or two, one member from each group posted the contract in the group's workspace on the Web.


Research Team

The research team consisted of the instructor and two graduate students who took the course at different times from the instructor. Because the two students had taken the course previously, their perspectives were invaluable in looking at the differing role of the student as student and as instructor. The three researchers collaborated throughout the process of analysis, writing, and rewriting.



The participants were the 47 students who took either Course A, B, or C. A summary of demographic data about the students in the three course offerings is shown in Table 1. Data were collected on Courses B and C using a precourse survey ("Readiness Assessment", 1998); Course A information was provided by the instructor. There were 13 students in Course A and 17 students in both Course B and Course C. Courses A and B each had one student who spoke English as a second language (ESL). In Course C, eight were ESL students. Students whose second or third language was English added to the complexity of communication. Employment of the students ranged from no employment to full-time employment: nine students in Course A, ten students in Course B, and eight students in Course C were employed full-time. Work responsibilities and workload contributed to struggles with scheduling and meeting deadlines. The students' initial Internet experience ranged from those with no experience to expert user: four students in Course A, eight students in Course B, and nine students in Course C were either experienced or expert users.


Student Demographic Data and Internet Experience






Number of students enrolled in course




Number of male students

Number of female students







English was the first language

English was the second or third language (ESL)







Full-time employment

Part-time employment

No employment










No experience with the Internet prior to this course

Novice user with the Internet prior to this course

Intermediate user with the Internet prior to this course

Experienced user with the Internet prior to this course

Expert user with the Internet prior to this course
















Table 1. Summary of student demographic data and Internet experience


Data Collection and Analysis

Two types of data were collected in the three course offerings: students' contributions to their workspaces and responses to open-ended evaluation questions. The data by course and category are shown in Table 2. To determine how on-line learning communities are created in Web courses and the contributions of group learning contracts to these communities, content analyses (Krippendorff, 1980) of each of the data sources were conducted. Themes and key words relating to the two research questions were identified. The researchers triangulated the data by obtaining multiple points of view from the varied data sources.

As described in the Course Synopsis, the use of a contract for group projects evolved from Course A's recommendations during spring 1998. With each offering of the course, the researchers gained valuable information pertinent to the study, as well as new ideas and questions to further develop the use and implementation of group learning contracts.

The content analysis involved the following procedure. We, the researchers, printed out each data source and independently identified emergent themes in each source. Through discussion, we gained consensus on the extent to which the themes that emerged from the data revealed answers to the research questions.


Data Source and Codes

Data Collected by Course





Group project development workspaces




Learning contracts developed prior to beginning projects (LC)


1st Implementation

2nd Implementation

Discussions of group dynamics (DI)

Focus Group Discussion

Electronic Discussion

Electronic Survey

Open-ended evaluation questions




Formative Evaluations completed during the sixth week of the semester (FE)

Not administered



Private Group Evaluations completed at the end of the projects (PE)

Not administered

Not administered


Final Thoughts written anonymously near the end of the semester (FT)


1st Implementation


Course Evaluations provided by the University (CE)




Table 2. Data sources collected by type of data and course


Representative comments from the participants are included in the Results section. We established a method to identify messages that are quoted verbatim in the paper. Codes were identified for the data source, the course identification, and if known, the author of the message. Message identification is enclosed in brackets after the verbatim messages in the text. First, the code of the data source is listed, using the codes from Table 2. Second, one of the courses A, B, or C, is listed. Third, because we assigned a discrete random number to each student in each course, the authors of entries are listed according to their numbers. In collaborative documents, however, the students did not identify themselves and therefore were coded in the text as "anon" for "anonymous." Group project development workspace entries were identified by more specific information, including the type of work (e.g., group discussion, project activity) and the specific group or project. Thus, a message that Student 36 wrote in the Formative Evaluation in Course B was identified with this description: [FE, B, 36]. Similarly, an anonymous posting from a student in the collaborative document Final Thoughts in Course C was identified with this description following the direct quotation from the transcript: [FT, C, anon]. A group contract by the teaching team in Course B was identified in this manner: [LC, B, Teaching].



The results of the two research questions are addressed in this section. These questions are concerned with project-based learning and creating on-line communities by using group learning contracts in Web courses. Both questions involve an instructor and students, whose roles are dramatically changed when moving from a traditional educational environment to an environment involving project-based learning on the Web. The actions, activities, products, suggestions, and evaluations of these courses helped to formulate the answers to the research questions.


Question 1: How are on-line learning communities created in Web courses?

On-line learning communities do not just happen naturally— they evolve from the combined influences of both the instructor and the students in a shift from a teacher-centered classroom to a learner-centered environment where students are encouraged to direct their own learning. All participants exert their own influence on the on-line community as a partnership is forged. The impact of these influences on the instructor, the student, and on-line community are discussed below with references to specific data.

The instructor plays a prominent role in the transition to a technology-based and learner-centered environment. The instructor must use appropriate instructional strategies and develop a well-designed course. Many students found the syllabus confusing, especially those who were new to the particular instructor's courses: "Confusing syllabus. Too many different places to look to make sure I was doing everything" [FT, C, anon]. "If you are a beginner in Dr. M. courses it is easy to get confused with so many assignments. After you have taken one course, things get easier regarding the amount of assignments you have to keep up with" [FT, C, anon]. Other comments, however, were more positive: "Course materials and resources are really focused on the course objective and compatible with students' needs" [FT, C, anon]. In addition, the data indicated that instructors need to be available, responsive, open, honest, and relevant, and they must support student empowerment. Students described the instructor as "the ultimate leader of the learning process; …[they] should handle problems of unequal levels of contribution in a straightforward, honest, and timely manner" (DI, B, 1]. When all is not running smoothly and after students have attempted to handle problems within a group, "it is the instructor's responsibility to handle the problems that arise" [DI, B, 1].

Students need to be ready to accept the technology and a learner-centered environment to transition to an on-line course. Active participation is required from all students. Students must be willing to take responsibility for planning, directing, and managing not only the various project components but also the people in their project groups. As one student related, "Web work continues to be the most productive means of group cooperation, IMHO[in my humble opinion]. The web offers a common and easily accessible location for all to observe the work progress and provide commentary" [DI, B, 8]. Ideally, students will work successfully with other group members.

A learning community evolves from a collection of individuals with diverse backgrounds to a cohesive entity working towards a common goal with clear and achievable objectives. Without a goal, "groups may often find themselves floundering. Ambiguity can sometimes mean the death of a group" [DI, B, 3]. The learners must form a partnership with the instructor and with each other to reach the stated goal. To achieve this partnership and build positive interdependence in teams, one student suggested that "teachers and instructors in general in both K-12 and in adult education should spend far more time and attention to team building and group processes" [DI, B, 12]. Another student posited that at the beginning of the semester groups should have adequate face-to-face time, because in "a totally web-based course with an orientation session, the…limited time…[poses] real challenges to the group dynamic" [DI, B, 9]. Students developed techniques to handle the problems that arose in their completion of the tasks. One way to forestall such problems was to share skills and expertise among group members. As one student described,

Providing structure seems to help facilitate group interaction as well. Breaking projects up into discrete tasks helps the group stay focused on the task at hand… The leadership…role can be distributed to everyone on various activities, for example leading a discussion includes initiating questions, giving feedback, asking follow up questions, and summarizing [DI, B, 7].

Students also proposed that frequent, open, and unencumbered communication among group members fosters the facilitation of all processes that must take place: "All members should feel free to offer input, as well as be open to constructive criticism. Members also have to be able to momentarily put aside their egos and personal interests for the sake of the group's collective goal" [DI, B, 3].

Opinions were mixed regarding the types of group projects assigned, which may impact the ways that level of community building is achieved. On a positive note, one student observed that "meaningful projects and assignments made the class valuable and relevant" [CE, C, anon]. On the other hand, students criticized the topics and the methods that the co-facilitators carried out their electronic group discussions and activities. For example, "I thought the topics for the group activities were great, but I didn't think the activities themselves were very productive [CE, C, anon]. Another student found that some of the topics "were so removed from the course content that it was possible to do them without reading the assignments" [CE, C, anon].

Overall, students recognized the roles and responsibilities of the instructor and students and a need for varied instructional strategies that allow for the facilitation of project-based learning and the creation of on-line communities. Students were responsible for group activities such as writing on-line reader chapters, creating Web sites, and planning and facilitating class discussions and activities like role-play and debates. The instructor assisted groups in planning and implementing their projects by providing structures like collaborative documents for small groups to develop their ideas without opening message after message, meeting with group members in real-time chats, and giving private feedback to individuals and public feedback in group conferences.


Question 2: How can the use of group contracts support learning in these communities?

One way to foster the creation of an on-line community in group projects is a group contract. Using contracts provided a structure for students in Courses B and C to determine their goals and the path of their projects.

Before creating their contracts, the students read a contract planning document (Severn, 1998). This document suggested that the group members specify the primary method of and frequency of communication, make contingency plans for emergencies, and decide whether or not to select an editor or leader. To create their contracts, groups were advised to use a template (see Appendix B). Some groups followed the template closely, while others expanded the contract to assign member roles, create timelines, and create a chat schedule. The contract allowed group members to create a group management plan for the semester's activities. The instructor offered suggestions throughout the creation process, acted as a mediator when needed in various groups throughout the semester, and had the final word when problems arose. Mediation was required at an individual as well as a group level. The instructor often served as the facilitator in conflict resolution. The contracts were effective in that all groups completed a product or project according to the specifications given in the syllabus. Groups typically handled their in-house problems according to their contracts before asking the instructor for help in this area.

Although the idea of using contracts in a class was new to some students, most readily accepted the idea. Students in Course C were notified in advance that they would create group learning contracts during class orientation sessions. This advance notice allowed students to read the contract planning document (Severn, 1998), review the contract template (Appendix B), and organize their ideas for their group's contract prior to the class orientation. When the project groups finally met face-to-face during the Course C orientation session, they unhesitatingly pulled out their notes and began discussing what to include in their contracts.

The group members determined when they would be available for meeting virtually and how often they would communicate with the group. They also decided on the methods of communication among members — which they knew to be vital to the success of their group. Some contracts appeared very loose and unstructured, while others identified specific actions that each group member must take. For example, one group specified that the group's primary interaction would occur via the Internet. “The best for the team [is] to have a virtual discussion…on an as needed basis in the evenings. Any virtual meetings will be scheduled in advance” [LC, B, Teaching]. Another group specified the details of communication more closely and referred to the contract periodically during the semester: "Group members will chat on-line via EWGIE each Sunday night at 8:30 p.m. beginning on Sunday, September 13, 1998…and will also contact each other via e-mail. All group members agreed to check their e-mail messages at least 4 times each week" [LC, B, Evaluation]. Groups could modify their contracts with approval of all members to help solve a problem. Most groups followed the contracts they created without difficulty, however, and when difficulties arose that the group could not handle, the members sought help from the instructor.

The group contracts helped to build a subset of the community (small groups) within the larger community (the class). In addition, the contracts helped to facilitate group interaction and cohesion by subtly forcing group members to look at the various personalities, skills, and workloads involved in their group. As one student explained, "Communication problems, leader problems, & unequal work loads are all things that happen in group situations. When the members don't know each other very well at the beginning of the class and there is not a lot of face-to-face to get to know each other, the problem can intensify" [DI, B, 6]. Others acknowledged the strength of diversity: "The more diverse they are, the better. Bringing differing backgrounds and experiences together can enhance the knowledge and skills of all group members" [FE, B, 11]. One student recognized that different approaches to working in a group can strengthen the group process and product: "The most important thing for people working in a group to remember is that everyone works differently…if everyone is not given the opportunity to work within their own framework, the group may be missing something very valuable as to the end product [FE, B, 5].

Students perceived the contracts as "real" — allowing them to give their group a way to deal with both the product creation aspect of the activity and the day-to-day administration, organization, and housekeeping tasks needed to be successful. One student attributed much of the success of his group to the group contract, which "helped us to formulate the expectations of each group member anda strategy for completing the project" [DI, B, 10]. The realness of contracts was perceived by one student who warned that an individual who does not fulfill the terms of the contract is "putting the entire group in peril" [DI, B, 4]. In some cases, the very existence of the contract caused an adjustment in attitudes and enhanced completion of the projects. Some students found that the selection of a leader or editor helped their groups bring about consensus and maintain equilibrium. For example, "Although the editor did none of the initial writing, she helped to find resources and has acted as a leader to help bring consensus to the group. …With constrained group communications, it is nice to have someone responsible for the overall project" [DI, B, 10]. At the completion of their projects in Courses A, B, and C, the students conducted reviews of each other's projects, in some cases based on criteria that each project group established. This process gave valuable feedback to the group members while allowing the instructor to estimate a group value. The instructor then used the Private Group Evaluation from each student to help determine point values of individual participation and contribution toward the small group project, raising or lowering grades accordingly.



A certain consistency exists among the instructor's classes. Although changes were made with each new offering of the course and sometimes during the course, the instructor included project-based learning assignments and contracts as components in all the courses. Communication among all parties was critical — between the instructor and learners, and among the learners within and between the various groups. Group communication requires that members establish bonds among themselves to plan, create, and revise their projects. Instructor communication is necessary to keep students informed of the overall process and to provide feedback on projects and guidance in dealing with group members.

The contracts created among groups were successful in that products resulted from each group. Some of the difficulties encountered were due to under-developed contract structure and learner lack of experience concerning contracts and their implementation. To achieve maximum benefits from using a contract, learners needed guidelines from the instructor regarding taking action to solve a group problem and identifying when it is appropriate to ask the instructor to settle group problems.

Students wanted the instructor to be the final arbitrator in conflict situations within groups. The specific point at which the instructor is asked to mediate a conflict needs to be specified in the contract. Students may more aggressively tackle in-house problems if they know when the instructor will be involved. The instructor needs to convey the importance of the contracts and support students as they attempt to handle problems within their groups. The instructor of these courses mediated conflict within groups by participating in real-time chats with all members of the group, attempting to guide the discussion toward realistic ends. The instructor often followed up on suchchats by private email, a phone call, or even a face-to-face visit with individual group members.

Contracts can help to form cohesive groups, but at the same time students can encounter group members who seem to be working against the group. Oftentimes a student who appears to be a non-participant, or "free-rider" (Hooper, 1992, p. 31), is a student who is a loner, an ESL student, a student with a heavy workload, or a student who encounters a crisis outside of the class and fails to inform other group members of the problem. Sometimes simply sending a short e-mail message informing other group members of the situation relieves the tension created when group members believe a member is a free-rider.

The outcome of this research was the development of guidelines for the use of instructors and students in defining their roles and responsibilities in Web-based courses. The instructor's responsibilities (Table 3) are separated into three categories: before, during, and after the semester. Similarly, student's responsibilities (Table 4) are categorized as the semester begins, during the semester, and at the end of the semester.



Instructor Responsibilities

Before the semester begins:  Planner and Organizer

  • Accept the concepts involved with designing, creating, and teaching an on-line course
  • Accept technology and the possible problems associated with it
  • Plan and prepare for on-line learning
  • Group projects:
    • establish the guidelines
    • define the objectives
    • create timeline for group projects
  • Create guidelines for a group learning contract (stress that guidelines can be expanded)
  • Advise students that contracts will be used and provide background materials to prepare them for their creation

During the semester:  Facilitator and Problem Solver

  • Empower students to work within their contract
  • Monitor progress of the groups and of the individual members
  • Facilitate interaction and collaboration
  • Provide mentoring and guidance
  • Address difficulties among group members
  • Stress continually the need for communication among group members

After the semester:  Evaluator and Re-designer

  • Evaluate success of on-line learning
  • Evaluate success of group projects
  • Re-design group projects as required
  • Refine contract guidelines and supporting documents as required
Table 3. Instructor responsibilities in on-lineproject-based learning


Student Responsibilities

As the semester begins:

  • Accept technology and the possible problems associated with it
  • Accept the idea that an on-line course will be different from a face-to-face course
  • Be prepared for open, honest, and fruitful learning
  • Get to know the other group members:
    • acceptance of differing cultural backgrounds
    • acceptance of differing skills
    • acceptance of differing workloads
  • Create a group contract to:
    • establish group goals and objectives
    • identify roles of the group members 
    • maintain group dynamics
    • troubleshoot problems
    • report progress to instructor
  • Meet deadlines

During the semester:

  • Follow the terms of the contract
  • Evaluate and revise the contract as needed
  • Evaluate personal progress in meeting group goals
  • Evaluate the group's progress and process

At the end of the semester:

  • Evaluate group contract — did it work, how would you change,
  • Evaluate personal participation in group

Table 4. Student responsibilities in on-line project-based learning


This study focused on small group size and small class size implementation of group learning contracts with graduate students who had not previously used them for project-based learning. Freeloaders are easily identifiable in small courses such as these, and group dynamics problems can be addressed relatively easily. Future research on project-based learning in on-line classes could focus on other variables such as increased class size, graduate versus undergraduate classes, and text-based on-line classes versus classes that incorporate a high degree of interaction via computer conferencing. For example, in large undergraduate lecture sections with labs, particularly in the sciences,students in the labs could use learning contracts to guide their small group work. Such research could reveal ways that freeloaders are identified and group dynamics problems are addressed in larger text-based on-line classes in other disciplines. Additionally, groups experienced in using contracts for project-based learning in on-line classes could be compared with inexperienced groups to determine the influence of experience in community building. The types of projects used in project-based learning may also make a difference in the quality of the product and the degree of satisfaction, and consequently, the amount of community building.



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Appendix A

Basic Support for Cooperative WorkTM (BSCW) - a shared workspace that enables students to write messages to each other, upload and download files, write and edit collaborative documents with version control, publish HTML files, link to web documents, and arrange meetings.

WWWBoardTM - a Web discussion board that allows students to engage in asynchronous threaded discussions.

Easy Web Group Interaction EnablerTM (EWGIE) - a chat room that allows students to engage in synchronous (real-time) chats with whiteboard capabilities.

FirstClassTMcomputer conferencing software, which has facilities for both asynchronous (e-mail and postings to class conferences or discussion groups) and synchronous (chat) communication.


Appendix B

Group Learning Contract


Names ______________________________________________________________________

Group ______________________________________________________________________

Jot down the data you wish to include. Determine who will compile this information and post it in FirstClassª. Use the worksheet to collect basic information.

Set primary and secondary communications devices and frequency. This is the most important area! Find out if all group members are comfortable with email and computer conferencing. You can use email and FirstClassª. Discuss frequency of contact. Discuss your favorite word processor, including version number. Which platform will be used (PCs or Macs)?

Determine a "rules of order" in case a difficult impasse arises. Will there be a group leader? How will the group come to agreement and/or resolve issues?

Work load:
How will the work be disbursed to group members? Who will act as secretary? If a group member does not share in the workload, how will this issue be handled by the group? What steps will the group take before asking for outside intervention?

Set "missing in action" time. This time could range from five days to ~ days. Informing group of your absences beforehand reduces stress.

Agree to change.
You might decide to have a weekly chat! Check contract regularly, as a group to ensure all are living up to the contract.


Appendix C

Formative Evaluation (FE)

Part I: Technologies

  • What do you like about the course so far this semester?
  • What don’t you like about the course so far this semester?
  • How would you recommend that changes be made?

Part II: Teaching and Learning

  • What do you like about the course so far this semester?
  • What don’t you like about the course so far this semester?
  • How would you recommend that changes be made?
  • What's the figure on the total number of hours you spend per week or per unit on this course alone? (If you can give a breakdown, that would be very helpful).


Private Group Evaluation (PE)
  • What were the final goals and objectives of the group?
  • How did the Group Learning Contract help or hinder you and your group?
  • What did you expect to gain from this experience vs your actual gains?
  • Would you be willing to work in a group with the same members again? Why or why not? (please be specific)
  • Any other comments?


Final Thoughts (FT)
  • Online syllabus, units, background
  • FirstClass
  • Books, readings (required & supplemental), and instructional content
  • Assignments
  • Schedule
  • Group contracts and activities
  • To what extent did you refer to the following items.
    • Resources on the class web site
    • The calendar on the class web site
    • The contracts your group created
    • Gradebook information on the class web site


Course Evaluation (CE)
  • What were the strengths of this course?
  • How can this course be improved in the future?
  • Other comments about the course: