Do you know your free riders from your social loafers?

Until this week I would probably have said that ‘free rider’ and ‘diligent isolate’ appeared in the lyrics to the Manic Street Preachers’ ‘Motorcycle Emptiness‘. And that social loafers was a brand of high-end slippers aimed at ageing hipsters.

Are these social loafers?

However, as I worked through my MSc readings on collaborative learning, I learned that they’re all terms to describe behaviours that people can exhibit in a group activity. For instance, a free rider doesn’t contribute to the task but still takes their share of the credit/grade, while a social loafer is someone who contributes diligently at first but notices that others are free riding; they feel they’re being taken for a mug, so they decide to down tools as well.

Like many people who’ve been through a western education system, I’ve not had much experience of group assessment. (Quick rant: the propensity towards individualism and self-interest in assessment is strange, given that in the workplace very few tasks are undertaken in complete isolation and everyone has to learn how to negotiate, organise and communicate with others in the real world. I blame Adam Smith.)

I suppose one of the main questions is whether these behaviours are more or less likely to occur in a digital space like a wiki compared to a physical classroom. Certainly, forming some kind of social connection with the other people in your group seems to be a key factor in successful collaboration. And you could argue that tools like Facebook and Skype are just as good at facilitating this ‘connectedness’ as the breakout room or the cafeteria, if not better. But will some people find it easier to free ride when they don’t have to look the other group members in the eye afterwards? Or is that underestimating the power of the human conscience?

Hmm, at the moment I’m thinking that people who do selfish or altruistic things will do so regardless of the context or medium. But maybe there are ways to structure an online group activity that make good collaboration more likely.


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