Completely online group formation and development: small groups as socio‐technical systems

Sean P. Goggins (College of Information Science and Technology, Drexel University, Wayne, Pennsylvania, USA)
James Laffey (University of Missouri – Columbia School of Information Science and Learning Technologies, Columbia, Missouri, USA)
, and
Michael Gallagher (College of Information Science and Technology, Drexel University, Wayne, Pennsylvania, USA)

Information Technology & People

ISSN: 0959-3845

Publication date: 7 June 2011



This paper has two purposes. First, to provide insight into the formation of completely online small groups, paying special attention to how their work practices develop, and how they form identity. Second, to pursue conceptual development of a more multi‐level view of completely online group experience, which can be made visible through analysis of the unique interaction logging system used in this study.


The authors conduct a mixed methods study that integrates interviews, grounded theory analysis, case study methods and social network analysis to build a multi‐layered view of completely online group and community development.


Completely online group formation is explicated as a socio‐technical system. The paper identifies themes of tool uptake and use, and patterns of interaction that accompany group formation and development of completely online group practices. These patterns show little respect for the boundaries of space and time. It then shows how groups who are paired together for two non‐sequential activities develop a common internal structural arrangement in the second activity, and are viewable as groups in the larger course context in four of six cases.

Research limitations/implications

The time bounded nature of the group and community, combined with the educational context limit the generalizability of these findings.

Practical implications

The study shows how completely online group development can be made visible. Managers of work teams and teachers who work with classrooms in completely online contexts need to recognize the dynamic structure and interaction practices of completely online teams.


First, little research has been conducted on completely online group formation. Second, a conceptual understanding of how group members relate to one another and how groups interact with other groups in the same socio‐technical context is not explored in prior work. Third, the paper performs this analysis including data from rich, contextualized usage logs, which enables greater insight into online group interactivity than prior research.



Goggins, S., Laffey, J. and Gallagher, M. (2011), "Completely online group formation and development: small groups as socio‐technical systems", Information Technology & People, Vol. 24 No. 2, pp. 104-133.

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Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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