Online Group Work

by Aaron Bannasch

Mary Bart of FacultyFocus.com posted an article about effective online group work techniques. Many students in SPS programs are working professionals who regularly work in collaborative environments. Many businesses benefit from the use of online technology to work in teams both locally and at a distance. For students enrolled in fully online courses at SPS, most peer interaction is online and computer mediated. Designing group activities and assignments for this environment will help students spend more time completing the assignment and less time configuring a collaboration infrastructure. Below are excerpts from Mary’s article with annotations to contextualize it for SPS courses.

Mary describes group activities as existing mostly in at least one of three possible states. When creating a group activity, you can use these three descriptions of group work as a guide to determine if the assignment you are designing is appropriate for online collaboration. Below are Mary’s descriptions rephrased as questions that you can ask yourself as you create an assignment.

  1. Open Ended Assignment – Does the assignment require debate or research about an emerging or controversial topic? Are there multiple possible outcomes that would be considered correct?
  2. Multiple Perspectives – Is the purpose of the assignment to include varied points of view, benefitting from perspectives of multiple individuals? Will students be required to analyze current events or case studies or make cultural comparisons?
  3. Resource Intensive – Is the project or assignment something that would be made easier by dividing tasks among a group to allow for more to be achieved in the same span of time? The article references solving a jigsaw puzzle as an example of a task that can be optimized for group participation.

The article also includes four aspects to consider that help to determine when to use a group activity in an online course and how to set one up. They are: preparation, assignment, technology, and evaluation. Each is important to consider when designing an effective group assignment. In this instance, each aspect will be described according to how it applies to distance learning at SPS using the Canvas LMS.

1 – Preparation

Before you configure the assignment in your Canvas course site, imagine the experience from a student perspective. Prepare the assignment by locating and including the required materials, writing concise instructions, and also providing students with an explanation that connects the assignment with learning objectives for the lesson to inform the student of why they will be completing the assignment as a group. The article suggests that:

  • “Students understand the value of both the process and product of the collaboration.”
    • Students should be able to plan out the tasks required to complete the assignment by reading the assignment and accessing the resources available to them in Canvas. If the assignment has a point/grade value, how does it compare to other graded items in the course? Demonstrate the value of the group work assignment not just for their individual learning but also within the context of the class; other lessons, assignments, and the learning of their peers all may depend on their performance during the group work assignment.
  • “Students have guidance concerning how to work in an asynchronous team.”
    • Provide students with clear instructions for using the tools available to them and how to leverage the power of the Canvas LMS to their advantage.
    • Clearly describe the assignment expectations, including how you envision them using the LMS to complete it (peer review, group assignment submission, collaboration tools, etc.).
    • Give them freedom to research and implement their own solutions to the problem and ask them to document and justify their actions.
    • In addition to solving the immediate problem posed in the assignment instructions, students also have to overcome the obstacles of collaborating at a distance through digital interfaces, seeking additional resources outside of the platform used for the course (in this case, the Canvas LMS), and then figuring out a way to document their process and represent their findings virtually.
    • Students collaborate using web 2.0 tools (Canvas uses http://bigbluebutton.org/ to create Conferences and allows Collaborations with Google Docs ), digital media creation (screencasting using Camtasia, digital media creation with Adobe Creative Cloud to Northwestern students at academic pricing) and content publishing (WordPress websites using CampusPress and digital portfolios using the built in Canvas ePortfolio).
  • “Group size is small enough to allow for full participation of all members.”
    • Determine how many students are needed to complete the assignment and use the Canvas LMS to help split up the work groups.
    • If you have expectations for a set number of roles for each group, split the groups of people accordingly and assign tasks/roles to complete the project. If part of the assignment is for students to assess the situation and create the roles and assign tasks on their own, create a group size that allows them to create about as many roles as you would have expected to assign.
  • “Course provides numerous opportunities for community building prior to group projects.”
    • Before asking the students to collaborate on an assignment, have them complete introductory surveys or discussions to become familiar with their peers. Allow them to connect outside of the course on their own terms if needed and remind them to check with their peers for scheduling conflicts before assigning groups, especially when classmates live in different time zones.

2 – Assignment

  • “Assignment is an authentic measure of student learning.”
    • Completing a group activity doesn’t mean students learned all that is needed to know about the concept from the lesson. Include information about learning objectives to help students connect abstract metaphor with actual information about the lesson concepts.
  • “Assignment will benefit from collaborative work.”
    • If students spend more time worrying about the technical obstacles of collaborating online than actually collaborating with their peers, the assignment is not effective.
  • “Students have clear guidelines of the expected outcome of the collaborative assignment.”
    • Write a descriptive list or use the Canvas LMS Outcomes to map parts of the assignment to learning objectives from the lesson module, the course goals, or the overall degree  program.
  • “Assignment creates a structure of positive interdependence in which individuals perceive that they will succeed when the group succeeds.”
    • A group activity, when completed as properly as intended, should rely on participation from all group members. One student should not be able to do all of the work on their own while following the requirements of the assignment. Encourage students to communicate with each other to prevent the possibility of some students not fully contributing and consequently affecting the overall group experience and grade.
  • “Assignment is scheduled to allow adequate time for preparation and communication.”
    • Use the Canvas LMS to assign due dates and keep students on task but keep in mind students’ busy schedules, especially distance learners from different time zones. Simulate the assignment yourself and add a contingency for those who are less familiar with the subject matter or the Canvas platform. Warn students ahead of time of the due date policy to prevent unjustified late submissions. Encourage students to communicate with each other and you well in advance and avoid last minute schedule changes or emergencies.
  • “Assignment is designed in a manner to allow students a level of personal control.”
    • Give students structure while allowing them to present reason for alternative methods. Remind students that when working in groups they are also accountable to their peers and suggest that groups establish a working agreement before they come under the pressure of time or technology constraints.

3 – Technology

As mentioned in the section about preparing the assignment, technology is an important component to this activity.

  • “Students are provided with tools and instructions to facilitate online communication.”
  • “Each group has a collaborative workspace within the online course.”
    • Student groups have access to their own sections of the course site to share documents and collaborate with only the members of their group.
  • “Students have technology skills relevant for asynchronous communication.”
    • Conduct an  introductory survey in your online course to measure the level of confidence that students have using online collaboration tools. Include resources for students who have limited experience, and offer guidance or workarounds for those who want to learn prior to participating in the assignment or who are unable to use advanced techniques.
  • “Back-up procedures are in place to deal with technology failure.”
    • Even when students know how to use the tools available, there are potential unexpected problems that can occur. Be prepared to work with students who experience technical problems that could not have been prevented or accounted for during the assignment preparation.

4 – Evaluation

Evaluating how students perform on the assignment is important for student improvement as well as for making improvements to the assignment.

  • “Grading and/or evaluation strategies differentiate between the process and the product.”
    • Rubrics, self/peer evaluations, and instructor feedback all should connect the different components of the group activity to the learning outcomes for the lesson.
  • “Strategies are in place to monitor interaction processes.”
    • Either passively using the Canvas LMS or actively by requiring students to document and organize a report of their collaborative and individual actions, a system should be put in place beforehand so that everyone knows what information to keep track of and how it will be used.
  • “Clear grading rubrics are provided at the start of the assignment to guide student work.”
    • The Canvas LMS has built-in rubric tools that can be used for most assignment types and assist in the grading process. If you choose not to use a rubric or use one that is not integrated into the Canvas grading system, make sure students are able to see how the points and grading criteria correspond to the contents of their assignment submission.
  • “Self and peer evaluations are included in the process to monitor individual involvement and accountability.”
    • Students should be invested in their own learning and in the experiences of their peers. Give students guidance on what to evaluate each other on as well as opportunities for them to express to others how they wish to be evaluated and what areas they are hoping to improve. Use the Canvas LMS peer evaluation features to simplify the process and document it in a structured way.

Online collaborations and group assignments can be used in any course. Game-based group activities offer a fun form of engagement for students and can be used to reinforce content learned in other lectures, readings, or assignments. A group activity can have a range of uses, from introductory icebreaker to long-term project and can be graded or ungraded, required or optional. Group work assignments should be “truly collaborative” and not an assignment that students will end up completing on their own. Online students working asynchronously should be able to plan to sequence the tasks of the assignment and delegate them to each other.



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