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Category: Teaching Strategies and Techniques

students in group discussion

When Scotty Dunlap, assistant professor of safety, security, and emergency management at Eastern Kentucky University, surveyed his students about group work at the outset of an online graduate-level course on auditing, they unanimously gave it low ratings. Asked the same question at the end of the course, they all gave group work high marks. In an interview with Online Classroom, Dunlap explained how he structures group work and uses video conferencing to create effective teams and make group assignments an engaging and rewarding learning experience.

Contrary to what some students might think, instructors do not typically assign group work arbitrarily or maliciously. Group work can help prepare students for professional collaboration, and it facilitates peer learning. In some cases, it's simply the best way for students to learn.

One of the objectives of Dunlap's course is for students to create a tool to evaluate how well an organization is performing in any type of discipline related to safety, security, and emergency management. Ideally, this tool will also be useful to students in their careers.

Dunlap tried having students do this project individually. “That became overwhelming for a lot of students. In the eight weeks that this class takes place online, it's a pretty tough learning curve to get people through to the point where they not only know about auditing but can then actually apply it in this final project. Creating a group project reduced the [individual] workload significantly to where it was much more tolerable for each student while still achieving course learning outcomes,” Dunlap says.

Unclear expectations within a group and lack of cohesiveness can detract from the online group learning experience. Dunlap tries to avoid these problems in several ways. In the second week of the course, facilitators—secondary instructors who each manage groups of 20 students—hold video conferences with each group (four or five students) to make sure that they're clear about assignment expectations, how the audit program is supposed to be set up, how the audit document is supposed to be created, and individual group members' responsibilities.

Dunlap likes to give students options on how they complete assignments. “I always try to give my students a lot of choice because I think they're going to learn better if they have control,” he says. However, he has found that too much freedom can be an obstacle. In early iterations of this course, Dunlap explained the goals and end product and then let students select their groups and negotiate individual responsibilities. “We found that the process took way too much time. It may have been week three or four by the time a lot of that information was solidified, which left them with much less time to actually execute the project.”

Now Dunlap assigns students to groups according to interest in a specific topic, minimizing time zone issues and providing a mix of experience levels. He has created documents that clearly explain the responsibilities for each group member. There is still some choice—each group member has different responsibilities—but providing this guidance has gotten groups off to a quicker start than when they are given total freedom to negotiate those roles.

In week five, facilitators convene a second video conference for each group to make sure that they are on track to complete the assignment. The video conference tool is also available to the groups for their independent use.

“It breaks down the technological divide a little bit because in all other online courses the only interaction students have with each other is through email or the discussion board. And so the students just become names on a computer screen. The video conferencing actually allows students to see, hear, and have an ongoing dialogue with people that ordinarily they would never have seen. It lowers a bit of the barrier that exists in a typical online class. It also allows for a much quicker avenue for students to ask questions, get directions, and set team member assignments, actions that otherwise would take place over a much longer period of time in the discussion board, their group space, or by email. So it's an efficiency issue as well,” Dunlap says.

Technically, this course is totally asynchronous, so Dunlap does not require students to attend any video conferencing sessions. He does not penalize those who don't attend or reward those who do. Approximately 90 percent attend the facilitator-led video conferences and between one-quarter and one-half of groups use the video conferencing tool independently. This level of participation in the video conferences indicates this course feature's perceived value and, Dunlap says, has contributed to students' positive perception of group work at the end of the course.

“Their perception of group projects coming into this course was pretty hideous, which was expected because a lot of students just don't like doing group projects. But with the way we structured it by using video conferencing and allowing them to interact with each other, the students responded incredibly well by the end of it,” Dunlap says.