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It’s well known that group work benefits the learning process but also that learners can dread the idea of doing group projects. So, as online instructors, what can we do about this situation? Research shows that group projects in online courses are fraught with mixed results for both students and faculty (Brindley et al., 2009; Morgan et al., 2014; Roberts & McInnerney, 2007). We need to provide the best environment for group work to occur because students gain valuable skills from group projects that they wouldn’t gain in an isolated online course (Roberts & McInnerney, 2007). There are a few simple changes that we can make to increase the likelihood of success in group projects. This article looks at five pain points of online group projects and how you as a faculty member can address these with course design and teaching practice.

Addressing the free-rider problem

A lack of student participation is one of the most common problems with group work. It is especially problematic in an online learning environment as students may live across the country or the world. Because of this, online students don’t have to worry about facing their peers or instructor in person, and a lack of accountability from faculty or social pressures can result in some students free-riding.

The good news is that there are several ways to address this problem in your online course. Designing for individual grades is one way to encourage participation from all group members (Williams et al., 2012). If a student knows they will be graded as an individual instead of as part of a group, they will be more likely to contribute. Students could be assigned specific parts of a group project, and their grade could focus heavily on their part of the project. You can also ask students to identify or use different-colored fonts for the parts of the project that they contributed to so it is easier to identify individual students’ work during grading. Another effective strategy is to build peer reviews into the group grading (Roberts & McInnerney, 2007). Knowing that a peer review will affect their grade could be the encouragement a student needs to be active within their group.

Monitoring group work

Research has shown that online course facilitation takes more time than its face-to-face counterpart (Worley & Tesdell, 2009). This is because there are additional faculty duties in an online environment, such as facilitating online discussion and being a technical coordinator.  Monitoring group work on top of existing duties can seem daunting. But as with the free-rider problem, you can design group work assessments in a way that reduces the amount of time you spend monitoring group work. One strategy is to schedule checkpoints throughout the project to prevent groups from getting off track or lagging behind, both of which require our input to correct. You can also use these checkpoints to ask for student feedback, allowing hesitant students to reach out with questions and giving you an opportunity to determine whether there is a problem within the group that needs attention (Scherling, 2011). These formative checkpoints also allow students to show what parts of the group project they are working on.

Selecting tools to facilitate collaboration

Another common issue with online group work is selecting the tools that students will use to complete the assessment. There are many tools available to meet group needs, such as web conferencing (Zoom, Skype, Slack, Collaborate Ultra, Bongo) and coauthoring of documents (Google Docs, OneDrive, Microsoft Teams). It can be difficult to determine which tools students will use for a project. One factor in tool selection is determining how and where students will collaborate. In choosing a tool, it’s important to find collaborative tools that allow collaboration by means other than written text alone (An et al., 2018). As you decide which tool to use, check to see which integrate with your learning management system or whether a third-party tool, such as Google Drive or Microsoft Teams, can provide the space needed for student collaboration. Another factor to consider with tool selection is how the tool can aid in the monitoring and grading of group work. It can be helpful to select a tool that tracks revisions and changes and allows students to easily show what they contributed to a project, especially when they challenge grades.

Scheduling for success

It can take time to build momentum in group projects, so the earlier you get students started on a project, the better. This is especially true in the online environment as lag time can occur between student connections and communications. It is best to have a project span several weeks, giving students plenty of time to come together, learn to work together as a group, and produce quality material (Scherling, 2011). While online education provides flexibility to students, it can also cause difficulties with group projects. Many online students have full-time jobs, family duties, or other responsibilities and thus work on online course material when it is convenient for them, which can interfere with group scheduling. Starting a group project early in a course gives students as much of a buffer as possible to work out the kinks in scheduling, allowing them to find times that work for the group as a whole.

Part of the timing of a group project is creating a road map to success for students. Along with starting the group project early, it is best to create formative assessments that contain specific due dates within the larger group project (Williams et al., 2012). These formative assessments can be scheduled checkpoints where you check the status of the project or smaller assessments that build up to the larger project. Additional examples of formative assessments could include a thesis statement, an annotated bibliography, specific parts of a group project (such as an introduction or literature review), or a rough draft of the group project. Scheduling such milestones can prevent groups from falling behind and having to rush to submit a completed project.

Motivating students

When students don’t see a clear purpose behind a group project, they feel less motivation and commitment. Research proves as much, showing that students are most engaged in group projects that are based on real-world problems (Scherling, 2011). This research serves as a reminder that faculty need to know why they are using a group project so they can clearly communicate that reason to students. In addition to relevance, look to engage students further by requiring the use of industry tools in their projects. Doing so gives students low-stakes opportunities to build skills relevant to their field. One area to focus on is pointing students toward important research tools or data sets that they will need to know how to use professionally. In this example from VHS Learning, students learn earth sciences by using a NOAA data set for tracking storms to compare hurricanes as well as by tagging satellite images of storms to help researchers understand their properties. When teachers integrate industry tools, students gain practical experience using them and the ability to show future employers that they are familiar with those tools. Explicitly stating the purpose of the group project and using industry tools combine to motivate students because they can clearly see how the project connects with their professional goals.

Summary

Group projects are a great way to build a collaborative community in the online learning environment. Though online group work presents challenges, faculty can design in a way that ensures a satisfying experience for students and faculty. You can implement successful group projects in your course as well.

References

An, H., Kim, S., & Kim, B. (2008). Teacher perspectives on online collaborative learning: Factors perceived as facilitating and impeding successful online group work. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 8(1), 65–83. https://citejournal.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/v8i1general1.pdf

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 Distributed Learning, 10(3). https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v10i3.675

Morgan, K., Williams, K. C., Cameron, B. A., & Wade, C. E. (2014). Faculty perceptions of online group work. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 15(4), 37–41. http://www.uwyo.edu/fcs/_files/documents/faculty%20documents/morgan,%20williams,%20cameron,%20wade%202014.pdf

Roberts, T. S., & McInnerney, J. M. (2007). Seven problems of online group learning (and their solutions). Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 10(4), 257–268. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1HM1i6TOyd51rqxZyIHrFndrEuFJU0G3d/view

Scherling, S. E. (2011). Designing and fostering effective online group projects. Adult learning, 22(2), 13–18. https://doi.org/10.1177/104515951102200202

Williams, K. C., Cameron, B. A., & Morgan, K. (2012). Supporting online group projects. NACTA Journal, 56(2), 15–20. https://www.nactateachers.org/attachments/article/1971/Williams_NACTA_June_2012.pdf

Worley, W. L., & Tesdell, L. S. (2009). Instructor time and effort in online and face-to-face teaching: Lessons learned. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 52(2), 138–151. https://doi.org/10.1109/TPC.2009.2017990

Eileen Horn is a senior instructional designer and Eric Peloza is an instructional designer at the University of Wisconsin Extended Campus.


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