Group behavior


Group behavior – Would you like to go to the washroom together?

When I was studying in my primary school in Shanghai, it was very normal for some girl to invite me go to washroom together. Actually it was so normal that if a girl was not invited, it means she was not popular. We went to washroom together not because it was dangerous to go alone, but because it was ‘normal’ to go together. (I cannot speak for boys).

It is normal to be in a group. It is not normal to not to belong to one.

So it is normal to travel in groups and to have wedding in groups. These groups are informal. Mostly in each group, there is a leader who is not necessarily the most capable but usually who is the most considerate and connects well with everyone. Democracy exists in these groups. People discuss and agree upon things, then act collectively.


Group behavior in social media

The group behavior also demonstrates itself significantly in the world of social media. A combination of Facebook, Instagram, Paypal and Twitter, Wechat is the biggest social media in China. I use Facebook to connect with my friends outside China and Wechat with my friends in China.

On Facebook most my messages are based on a one-to-one relationship. The conversation happens between two persons – the counterpart and me. Meanwhile half of my Wechat messages are take place in groups. I have groups with people from my school, family and work community.

redpocketIn cater to this group phenomenon, Wechat developed many useful features to including ‘Wechat Red Pocket’ . It is based on the tradition of red pocket for Chinese New Year, when money is wrapped in red envelop given to family and friends as a gift. ‘Wechat Red Pocket’ offers users the ability to send out virtual Wechat credit (linked to real money). The ‘grouped’ red pocket can be posted to a group chat and group members can click to get the credit (first come, first serve).

Root of group behavior explained

Chinese society has been fundamentally agriculture based. In south part of China, migrants arrived centuries earlier and settled in places with enough land to cultivate. That means many descendants could remain in the vicinity, making for a critical mass of nearby kinsmen. (Ebrey P., Cambridge Illustrated History China, 2010). During 16th century, lineages were already introducing elaborate systems to control, support and discipline members. Over time the institution of lineages weakened but its concept rooted in Chinese people’s minds. The natural concept of belong to a group (although it is not necessary to be based on kinship) becomes the soil of the tree to guide individual’s actions and thoughts.

The notion of lineages is not uncommon in western cultures. For example, in the TV show ‘Madman’ we saw the Campbell Macdonald fight. These two men got into a flight from their loyalty to their ancestral Scottish clans, defined by family names.


However two revolutions in Western history diluted the role of groups in people’s life. The Industrial Revolution stimulated trading and thus reduced the economic benefits to stay together. The Culture Revolution in 1960’s UK and US created youth culture and strengthened the culture of individualism.

Take a look at our classrooms!

classroom-chinaBut culture is too complicated to view using only one lens. The photo on the left shows how a typical class looks like in China.  When we observe so much group behavior in social life and on social media, it is much less so in the classroom. In another word, the notion of group behavior, while permeating the social life and social media, has made little influence in the formal education system. Why?

For a long time in China’s ancient history the only way to achieve social mobility was to excel in the civil exam. To excel in the exam, one needed to recite accurately some most obscure paragraphs in selected books. Success of life hugely depended on a high stake exam. The exam required learning more through interheadaction with texts than through social emotion interaction with others. A famous student role model is a man who tired his hair on house beam so whenever he fell asleep while reading at midnight; the hair attached to the beam dragged his head up and woke him up. Key message – learning is lonely and hard.

In the Western research society of education, Lev Vygotsky’s ZPD theory gained its influence. People recognized learning and development through social and emotion interaction with others. The notion of learning with others and from others constituted the foundation of group learning.

Group behavior in online learning

We examined group behavior in social life and in classroom. How about group behavior in online learning? How about MOOCs when the division of formal and informal learning started to blur? How does group form, establish its power structure and culture? Are certain benefits of collaborative learning get lost or strengthened? I hope to address these questions in the following essays.

Sources of photos:

  4. Youtube





Just coming back from Edinburgh Cultural Festival I dived quickly into the academic discussion about the notion of culture. The Edinburgh festivals is a kaleidoscope demonstration of how people express themselves, the world by constructing stories in artistic forms. The notion of culture discussed in academic settings covers a wider range of situation: how people address uncertainty, power hierarchies, opposite gender etc. An art form of culture is an intense, staged version of daily culture.

I many times think of our world as a garden or a safari or a juggle, an ecosystem in which all kinds of live beings play a certain role. Just as we are amazed by the diversification our nature offers, we shall embrace how each genre of plant or animal plays a unique role in the world naturally. In the desert plants with thin leaves survive by reducing water evaporation. In the tropical regions, plants with opposite features thrive. The soil, the weather, the microenvironment and the food chain structure shaped the habit and the look of a particular plant or an animal.

In terms of human culture, things are even more complicated because we can change our environment. Our local environment shapes us (our local culture) but we shape our environment too. By environment, I not only meant natural environment also include the concept of institution, legal structure, etc. In certain cultures, rules matter more than in others. For example, right now I am preparing my driving theory test in UK. Part of it is to memorize hundreds of traffic signals. There are more than 300 articles to cover every situation for every type of drivers. It was not the case when I was preparing my driving theory test in Hong Kong. When I was negotiation contract with Chinese universities for my work, they usually complain how long UK contracts are compared to US contract. This is a reflection of culture. It is a result of intertwining of history, institution, constitution, geography and even weather. Accumulation of culture goes back long way and it is rooted much deeper than it looks.

In the wildness, it is possible to reach equilibrium over time. Without dramatic external change, number of each species stabilizes. However our civilization has a less peaceful record. We had wars and battles between nations and continents, many times due to clashes of religions and identities. As the concept of religion and identity forms our culture, I can therefore say, we had wars and batters, many times resulting from our incapability in resolving cultural differences.

Luckily we are increasingly aware of culture, thanks to modern technology and resulting cross cultural communication. The ultimate purpose  of knowing is not to know every possible stereotype. The significance of the study for me is to be aware someone’s way of thinking and being can be completely different from mine, or even from my imagination. And that demonstration of behavior is determined by value. That value is deeply rooted under the influence of history, social, anthropology factors. A certain value combined with certain behavior created the notion of certain ‘stereotype’. That stereotype can be even more deeply entrenched in our minds.

Zootopia is a movie about ecosystem. ‘From the largest elephant to the smallest shrew, the city of Zootopia is a mammal metropolis where various animals live and thrive. When Judy Hopps becomes the first rabbit to join the police force, she quickly learns how tough it is to enforce the law. Determined to prove herself, Judy jumps at the opportunity to solve a mysterious case. ‘


We want to create a zootopia for an online learning community. It takes institution and many brave individuals like Judy Hopps.

Appendix: photo source –


Run faster, eat bitter for the better


One of my cousins works for a bank in Beijing. During her recent visit, she shared with me some stories of her colleagues from China’s second and third tier cities. These stories are history of struggles with happy endings. People worked really hard in school to move to the first tier city and get a better paid job. They continued to work really hard at work and save every penny they can. A standard formula for a happy ending:  with all these struggles, he/she bought a flat.

Work really hard and get a flat. That is success for you, in reality. Chinese young people shall not feel lonely. On the west side of the Eurasia continent, in London house prices are also crushing the hopes of a young generation.

However there are extra layers of complexity on the China map.

Contrast – There is huge inequality between first tier cities and the rest, between urban areas and rural areas. Each province has its relative independent ecosystem, with its own infrastructure, governing team, subcultural, career opportunities. What people aim for is to move to a better system, better pay, more efficient administrative system, more job opportunities.

Mobility – But mobility is difficult due to the home registry system (户籍), a ‘sub visa’ scheme operating within the country. Each person’s home registration is attached to a local province, with gives him/her the title to study, work and receive welfare only within that province. It is a lottery where you were born. (Isn’t it universally true?). The usual channel to achieve upward mobility is to go to a university in first tier city which improves your chance to find a job in that city and settle down there significantly.

tom and jerry runningThe channel is narrow but achievable, for someone from a less privileged family. One needs to eat bitter (吃苦). Eat Bitter is a concept meaning making huge sacrifices usually to obtain certain goal. In this context, it means studying extremely hard so that one can score higher than 1000, 10,0000 peers in the university entrance exam. It means try every possible way to get a better pay job and stay in the best city possible. It means work non step, count every penny you pay for living because the next thing on the checklist is to save enough money for a flat downpayment.

This has brought an interesting context for education – what is the purpose of you going through an official education system? To compete and win so you can beat the 1000 others and get to the next level?

What if you have a happy ending here? When everything that has been driving you is achieved, what is next? Run faster towards which goal? Eat bitter for what? For the better measured by what? Who are you? A winner at life but what is your cause?











Technological tools for collaboration


Collaboration is hard (think of the most intimate format of collaboration – marriage, 48% of them fail in Canada and 53% in USA, source – divorce demography wiki). Virtual collaboration is harder.

For the four stage of (mostly offline collaboration) : form, norm, storm and perform, if we want to migrate that online, obviously we need tools which support the whole process – to know each other, to form standard and bond, to discuss and debate, until ultimate to produce outcomes and develop portfolios.

What are some existing technological tools available to facilitate this process? Are they fragmented along the process or can they be integrated?

facebook iconlinkedin Icon

Profiling – we want to feel we are cooperating with humans, that makes the process and impact more personal. The network of Facebook and LinkedIn make it so much easier to establish a profile and network both in personal and professional context.

wechatGoogle hangout iconslack iconSkypeCommunication – There are numerous communication tools in the market. They can be in the form of either asynchronous or synchronous, pass over messages via the format of text, audio, video or multimedia. Some of them run better on mobile devices and others do so on computers.

google_docs_original_icons_by_painiax-d74oqqfCo-creation – This is where nobody does better than Google documents. For almost every group project I am in, all of them rely on Google documents and Google folder, except my projects in China. (power of firewall, see my related blog – love letter for Google)


slideshare  icon

pinterest iconyoutube icon

 e-portfolios – slideshare, pinterest, youtube are all possible e-portals for people to display their collaborative outcomes.

These technological tools are not just made for educational purpose and they are fragmented. Does it matter?


Is the world of education flat?


Assuming our world especially the world of technology continues to flatten, what does it mean for us, individually and institutionally?

I believe we need to have a global and a growth mindset. A global mindset to equip us to be able to collaborate with people beyond cultural boundary. A growth mindset to upscale skillsets in order to stay relevant.

The world of learning and teaching respond rapidly to our fast changing reality, in both formal and informal learning space.

student packingFor students – According to OECD’s white paper ‘Education at a Glance 2012’, ‘the number of international (tertiary-level) students has increased fivefold from 0.8 million worldwide in 1975 to 4.1 million in 2010…Since 2000, the number of foreign tertiary students enrolled worldwide has increased by 99%, for an average annual growth rate of 7.1%.’


world mapFor teaching – New business models emerged with a groundbreaking example of Minerva School. The university allows students to live and learn in seven of the world’s cities during four years of study in accredited residential program. The first batch of its students come from different continents. (read commentary ‘Is Minerva University redefining 21st century education’)

For informal lifelong education – Open Educational Resources (OER) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offer everyone with internet access to read, watch and digest educational content.

If we can make educational content open at massive scale, can we make collaborative learning at massive scale, using technology?

The technology world is flat


A decade ago, in his book ‘The World is Flat’, Thomas L. Friedman argues that the world was becoming a level playing field for commerce, citing ten driving forces such as

  • Breakdown of political division : collapse of the Berlin Wall
  • Internet ubiquitous allows information, content, work to flow, and the possibility of uploading and collaborating of online projects
  • Business model: outsourcing and offshoring

Top 10 technology companies by market cap 1995As of today, all of them are proved true especially in the world of technology.

In 1995 world’s top 15 technology company list (by market capitalization, source: Mary Meeker, ‘Internet Trend’ 2015) told us a few things:

  1. Companies were all from North America territory and Europe (1 from Germany)
  2. They were still largely operating in their home base.

Looking back it felt the world was living in another life.

Top 10 technology companies by market cap 200520 years after, situation largely changed. Among the top 15 list, 4 of them come from China. All of them are global brands aiming for the world’s lion share.

Most of them also did not exist in year 1995, such as Facebook (USA), Alibaba (China), Tencent (China).

These technology unicorns are young, ambitious and global known.

In year 2016, technology continues to disrupt all industries including taxi (Uber of USA, Didi of China), hotel (Airbnb of USA), personal finance (Ant financial of China). They entered into the world’s league table with equal ambition to face the flat world.

The question is – how does our formal and informal education respond to this new world?

Top 10 technology companies by 2016

Sweat together and bond after


Recently I did a talk about learning and collaborating online in small groups with slides HERE.

Main storyline goes as

  • Higher education is shifting from location/culture based towards objective/interest based. My undergraduate education was totally immersed by Chinese culture. But the situation is much different when I take a MOOC course or even doing an online degree program which was designed by a Canadian university.
  • A diversified learner population decreases the chance of marginalising minorities (in terms of races and professions). Being marginalised is not some experience I am familiar with as a child but something I had to deal with as a grown up. A carefully designed international program usually balances its student background mix so there will be no dominant culture. Naturally so does a MOOC course.
  • A good team communicates and works together to overcome a shared challenge.
  • Network formed from a good small group experience goes beyond course duration and course content. 

teamworkA good team and network formed after can be a result from either a MOOC course or an online degree course. The prerequisite is that the team shall be motivated intrinsically and have certain collaboration skills. So that they are prepared to spend time communicating, negotiating, sweating altogether in the same boat and know how to do that.

Isn’t that the same with all our human experience? You share a challenging journey together and bond after.