Topic 3 reflection: Currents and Contagions

In this third blog for the ONL201 course, written after we have spent two weeks focusing on learning in communities (networked collaborative learning), I will reflect on what happened in my own PBL13-group in one of our online meetings, as it moved my thinking forward. Or, perhaps that is saying too much? In any case, what happened in our PBL-group reminded me, once more, of the inherent potential of creative group work, and such creative group work can definitely take place online. I have always believed in, and even done some research on, the great potential of group work. However, it is so easy to forget about this potential.

In the assigned reading for these two weeks, one text was about how to create effective collaborative learning groups online (Brindley, Walti, & Blaschke, 2009). Before looking more deeply into what they write about, I would like to say a few things about the concept of directed motivational currents, or DMCs. We all know that in nature, a current is a strong movement of water flowing in one direction. Some education scholars has borrowed this term to illustrate aspects of motivation in language learning. Dörnyei and his colleagues (2016) argue that DMCs can be observed in different forms of human activity, such as in doing sports or when studying. They claim that DMCs have strong impact and that DMCs can exist both at the individual and group level, and in various contexts, for instance in a sport arena or, as in my case, in a PBL13 zoomroom meeting. Regardless of context, they argue that there is a shared, common pattern in DMCs: “a person or a group suddenly embarks on a project, invests a great deal of time and energy and, as a result, achieves something quite remarkable” (Dörnyei et al., 2016, p. 2). In our PBL-group, we suddenly created a Snakes and Ladders board game tied to the topic of networked collaborative learning. It was so much fun and we felt we achieved something, right then and there. We were really creative and collaborated so easily!

It may be suitable to mention that there are both individual and group-DMCs. With regard to the latter, the energy in the group is theorized to be spread by processes of contagion, as in becoming infected by the emotions and cognitions of others. Barsade (2002) talks about this phenomenon as a ripple effect and bases this on the results of a laboratory study of managerial decision making. He found that group members had experienced a positive transfer of moods (which would be an example of emotional contagion) that, for instance, decreased conflict and enhanced cooperation. As a bonus, the perceived task performance among those who participated was increased too. If we try to transfer all of this into the context of online teaching and learning, it is essential that teachers understand that in learning communities online (cf. student groups working online), there will be shared social processes going on. These processes can contribute to generating focus and a greater team orientation, which I believe might be what happened with us when we created that board game.

Returning to the text, Brindley et al. (2009) list a number of instructional strategies that align well with my example above. For instance, Brindley and her colleagues highlight the importance of using clear instructions for learning groups online. Clear instructions are of course crucial in any type of teaching, whether on campus or online, but in order to make group work function well and contribute to increasing students’ motivation to work in groups, it is indeed crucial that the instructions from the teacher are clear. In relation to course design, Brindley at al. (2009) point out that it is helpful if motivation for participation is embedded in the actual course design. Phrased differently, “[i]ndividual success is dependent upon group success” (p. 10). Thus, as a teacher, it is worth investing some time in designing tasks for which the output (group product) is necessary for individual students for task completion (and ultimately perhaps for meeting course requirements). A third instruction strategy they bring forward is respect for the autonomy of learners. After many years as a teacher, I would say this is one of the most important strategies to use. Students of all ages need to have the freedom so make choices and form their own groups – definitely not all the time, but regularly – so that they, for instance, can work with peers with whom they have shared interests. In recent online teaching at the university, I have started to use a quick poll with my students before I send them into so-called breakout rooms for group work or group discussions. More specifically, before they are sent to their breakout rooms the second time around, I have them answer a quick anonymous poll whether they would like to keep the group constellations from the first round, or whether they would prefer new group constellations. My impression is that these polls have made online group work more effective in the sense that the students ‘have a say’. If the first round of groups was not working that well (the answers in the poll will give a clear indication), the second round offers a new opportunity, so to speak. If they liked the groups they were first assigned to, we just stick to them. In a study by Capdeferro and Romero (2012), they were able to identify that asymmetric collaboration in online groups was the most important reason for student frustration. That is, when there is an imbalance in students’ level of commitment or responsibility, or in their efforts, efficient collaborative work online is threatened. Capdeferro and Romero’s study shows, for example, that some students find it irritating when the teacher/instructor stays away, and they do not appreciate when there is lack of guidance. Here, the teacher can make a difference by stepping in. A simple poll might be one tool to use.

Altogether, then, for me, I would like to say that Topic 3 has functioned as a welcome (and helpful) reminder of the inherent potential of group work. To a certain extent, Topic 3 has also empowered me as a ‘teacher online’. It feels as if I am on the right track.


Barsade, S. G. (2002). The Ripple Effect: Emotional contagion and its influence on group behavior. Administrative Science Quarterly, 47(4), 644–675. Retrieved from doi:10.2307/3094912

Brindley, J. E., Blaschke, L. M., & Walti, C. (2009). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3). Retrieved from

Capdeferro, N., & Romero, M. (2012). Are online learners frustrated with collaborative learning experiences? The International review of research in open and distance learning, 13(2), 26-44. Retrieved from

Dörnyei, Z., Henry, A., & Muir, C. (2016). Motivational currents in language learning: Frameworks for focused interventions. New York, NY: Routledge.

Published by Pia Sundqvist

I am Pia Sundqvist and work as an associate professor of English language education at the University of Oslo, Norway, and as an associate professor of English lingustics at Karlstad University, Sweden. I My research is within the field of applied English linguistics, more specifically in English 'didactics' (English language education). My main research interest is informal learning through extramural English (digital gaming in particular), often with a focus on L2 vocabulary acquisition. I also do research on (the assessment of) L2 oral proficiency, multilingualism, and English language teaching.

3 thoughts on “Topic 3 reflection: Currents and Contagions

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this Pia. You’re absolutely right about the contagion, and the degree to which is it infectious….one person’s lead or positive energy in the learning can easily spread to the others, as we experienced in the group 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Pia! Many thanks for your inspiring blog with great insights. (And thanks also for all your publications on extramural English and other topics, which we use regularly among our students, but that is another matter. 🙂 I like your metaphoric use of “water” and “current” very much and I certainly agree that teachers (at least language teachers) can see this “current” being alive and strong in some students who are inspired and experience “flow” in their learning, whereas the current seems to have stopped or to be dormant in others. So if collaborative learning, especially online collaborative learning, can contribute to more creativity and flow in learning we should spend much more effort on course design that promotes flow. The way you describe your collaborative learning in your PBL group (and we admired your board game too!) shows that these processes can release a lot of creativity and fun, which makes learning more like a “real-life” experience instead of a traditional classroom procedure. (Many teachers, especially teachers for young learners, obviously have creative designs in their physical classrooms too, but I think we could use creativity in learning a lot more at university level). As is mentioned above, positive energy is also contagious, which in turn will also release more energy for learning. I also liked your practical tip for using polls in break-out rooms and will try this our myself. Many thanks and good luck with all your current and future projects! /Pernilla, PBL group 6, Stockholm University)


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