The group or collaborative project is becoming de rigueur in many online courses. Its purpose is not simply to have students work together for a joint grade and end project but also to develop essential skills that will serve them in the professional world. Yet students can't merely be tossed into groups, given an assignment, and told to produce. This approach would lead to mixed results and frustrated students. Rather, there is an art to the online group project, with many parts that must be considered—so many parts, in fact, that I have divided this column into two sections.
Let's get started with some general rules of the road to help students work effectively and efficiently in their efforts to produce a group project.
Explain the inner workings of group projects early. There will be online students who have not participated in group projects and others who have worked collaboratively in other classes and/or on the job. Regardless of students' level of experience there needs to be an introduction to the purpose of a group project, the specific requirements and guidelines, the benefits of creating a group project in an asynchronous learning environment, suggestions on how the group may divide up various parts of the project, and the online instructor's involvement with each group. This explanation should given as a main, permanent posting in the class (for constant referral purposes) and as an email to each class member. Post this one week prior to the group project beginning.
Use reality-based education to give groups a sense of purpose. By tying the collaborative project into the work world, it immediately becomes an important part of a class that has real-world applications. The group project is becoming more the norm in corporations; thus, the more experience class members have in a group within the course, the better they can contribute to a group as an employee. And to help bolster group member engagement, ask each person in the group for experiences he or she has had working in a collaborative setting—the good, the bad, the ugly. Finally, post examples—articles, videos, etc.—that demonstrate the importance of group projects beyond the classroom.
Be candid regarding the possible problems that might arise and how to overcome them. The negative aspects of working in groups are nearly legend. Anyone with group experience has encountered at least one, and each must be met head-on by the group. The primary problems are difficulty getting started, group members not participating equally (either participating very little or not at all or trying to dominate the group), group members not meeting established deadlines for the project, personality clashes, lack of communication, and lack of assigned task preparation. The group members must know what potential challenges they may encounter and be equipped with suggestions on how each can be minimized or expunged.
Have each group select a team leader. The team leader can help the group stay on task, remind group members of various project deadlines, submit portions or all of the group project to the instructor, let the instructor know of any group problems, and oversee the final editing/construction of the group project. He or she must take on the role of chief motivator for the group. Let your class know that each group must choose a group leader by a certain deadline (e.g., the Friday before the first week of the start of the collaborative project). Be sure to detail the responsibilities of the group leader.
Create group discussion threads and be an active presence. The group members need a designated “room” where they can discuss the project, share components of the project, etc. Thus, it is important to establish individual discussion threads for each group (no collaborative member is allowed to post outside his or her group's discussion post). This thread will rapidly fill up with member posts. The instructor should participate in a limited manner by providing occasional suggestions, guidance, and encouragement; monitoring for problems; and posting any resources that could be helpful to a task being discussed or encountered. There might also be a need to contact individual group members to address difficulties observed in the group. When a post or email to the online instructor from a group member appears, answer it within 24 hours. A quick reply may make a difference in a group's dynamics, timeline, or approach to the project. This can be critical in an online environment, where nearly all group interaction is through discussion postings and emails. Knowing the group can count on the instructor to be there when needed is a comforting thought for the group members.
Post examples of good and not-so-good collaborative projects. No matter the number of group project guidelines, suggestions, and ideas the online instructor posts in a class, nothing beats an example of what passes as a really good collaborative project—and what does not. Depending on the subject, the instructor might post a written group project, a picture of one, or a video of the end result. Likewise, a group project that doesn't pass muster will also be of immense help to the groups. Point out why one is a good example and another is not. (Of course, remove all prior group members' names, etc.)
Incorporate group “nuggets of wisdom” into the entire class. Each group will offer ideas on collaborative work that other groups—and perhaps the online instructor—did not consider. Gather this advice and share it with the class. Also save any useful ideas that are new to you for future use.
Have resources available that focus on group projects. There may be existing information on working collaboratively posted in the course, and the textbook may contain similar information. But it is important that the online instructor offer the class additional resources on the what, how, and why of collaborative projects. There are two immediate benefits to this: First, more information will certainly help group members (e.g., possible approaches to a topic, suggestions for integrating multimedia, additional pitfalls that a group might encounter, ideas for a group project relating specifically to each group's topic, etc.). Second, it shows that the online instructor is actively and enthusiastically involved in the course, resulting in a stronger student-instructor bond and a more enjoyable learning experience for the students.
Constantly inject major doses of enthusiasm and excitement into each group. An online instructor must be the head cheerleader for each group during the duration of the collaborative project. Certainly, the team leaders—and all team members—are expected to remain enthusiastic about the group's responsibilities, but these are students of varied backgrounds who no doubt have many other things in their lives on which to focus. Thus, encouraging words from the online instructor become a must to keep each group at the top of its motivation to do a great job on the project.
REMEMBER: A picture can be a thing of beauty that holds the eye, captures the mind, and takes one's breath away—but its impact can result only from so many pixels collaborating their individual efforts into one harmonious result.
Errol Craig Sull has been teaching online courses for nearly 20 years. He writes and conducts workshops on distance learning and is widely recognized for his work in this field. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his second online teaching text. Please write him at firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions and comments—he always responds!