There are many benefits to incorporating group assignments into an online course. Working with other class members towards a common goal develops the skills of collaboration students will need as they enter the workforce. A team approach to an assignment facilitates the sharing of ideas and a feeling of connectedness that is often hard to obtain in an online learning environment. Group assignments engage students in the content and necessitate an active role in learning the material with their peers.
Common Pitfalls in Online Groups
Despite the benefits, groups are not always successfully run and can sometimes be a point of frustration for students. Complaints of ineffective groups generally result from an unfair division of work or “social loafing.” In these situations, one or two students end up doing the majority of the assignment or another student puts in minimal effort and still receives a passing grade because of the compensation from his/her teammates. Students may also complain that there was a difficult personality within the group, that team members didn’t communicate effectively, and that the resulting assignment was worse than if they had simply completed the assignment themselves.
Factors to Consider for Online Groups
There are a number of factors to consider when forming and facilitating an online group to help avoid some of these pitfalls and help students have a successful experience.
- Purpose – Create a relevant, meaningful purpose for the group and clearly state this within the assignment. Students are more likely to become engaged in an assignment when they understand why they’re being asked to complete it.
- Type of assignment – Groups are most likely to be effective when they meet one of the following criteria: a) the task is too large to be completed by one individual student, b) there’s no right or wrong answer to the assignment, or c) multiple perspectives are needed to solve a problem or reach a goal.
- Timeline – Given the nature of communication online, group assignments inevitably take longer. Allow for a longer timeline than what might be necessary for a face-to-face course and consider providing “checkpoint” assignments or messages to help students gauge their progress.
- Set-up – Consider group size, how groups will be assigned and if there will be established roles within the group. It’s recommended that groups are kept small (3-5 people) to facilitate active engagement among the participants. While arguments can be made for the merits of different group structures, what matters most is the intentional setup of the group and aligning structure with the intended purpose of the group.
- Technology tools – Promote the use of online tools to help facilitate communication among groups. These tools include Groups in Canvas, Wiki pages in Canvas, Videoconferences in Canvas (WebEx or BigBlueButton), Google Drive, and online chat functions that can make it easy for students to share content and exchange ideas.
- Evaluation – To help combat the unfair division of labor, instructors often structure the grading of group assignments differently to capture both the quality of the assignment as well as the student’s involvement in the group. Consider having group members rate each other in terms of their performance within the group or having a self-reflection component that factors into the overall grade for the assignment.
- Instructor presence – While a main focus of groups is to allow students the space to be able to collaborate with one another, maintaining presence as an instructor is still important. Encourage students to start working early, create reminder announcements throughout the course to keep students on track, and be available to answer questions or concerns.
- What are best practices for designing group projects? – This article from Carnegie Mellon University discusses strategies and specific examples from courses of ways to develop effective group projects.
- Student Perceptions of Online Group Work – Student insights about group projects are included in this article along with how to overcome common barriers to groups.
- How to design effective online group work activities – This article includes a checklist for creating and implementing effective groups.
- Research on virtual teams: This describes a case study of online groups at an Australian university including the challenges and potential solutions for the course.
If you would like help implementing group activities in your online courses, feel free to contact eLearning (x5125 option 3) to set up a consultation with an instructional designer.