Ready, Set, Collaborate!

by William Guth

Designing and assessing group projects that promote meaningful learning experiences in positive collaborative environments.

While students may groan at the prospect of performing group work, positive group experiences have been shown to contribute to student learning, retention, and overall program success. By working in collaborative groups, students can exercise a host of professional skills that can they can apply in the real world and reinforce knowledge and skills that are relevant to your coursework and curriculum.

For Faculty, one benefit is being able to assign more complex, authentic problems than you could to individuals. This may introduce more unpredictability in the results, as groups approach tasks and solve problems differently, but this can also be refreshing. Be prepared to be surprised.

Allow me to present Exhibit A. IMC 450 – Financial Accounting culminates each quarter in group presentations where each group is expected to present for up to 20 minutes, and allow 5-10 minutes to field audience questions and engagement. In a classroom environment, that’s two and a half hours. Throw in a bathroom break, or two and you’ve reached the end of a typical lecture hall session. And that’s assuming everything is running on time. The group who goes first is going to check out immediately, having delivered their final presentation, while the remaining groups feel obligated to stay awake and engage until their turn. Plus, having just heard each presentation once, and not being industry experts, your students may not be able synthesize what they heard into challenging and intelligent questions, leaving you to do the heavy lifting of leading the question and answer session.

In theory, this type of online group presentation amounts to an elongated sync session, possibly having to schedule multiple sessions in order to break up the length and accommodate specific group needs. Coordinating the schedules of 20-plus students, spread out across the country, for a long evening of online performances is not part of your job description. And, time spent managing group issues and technology foibles detract from the quality of engagement.

So, how do we do this online?

By combining online presentation tools (e.g. Google Slides, Powerpoint Online) with web conference software (e.g. BlueJeans, Google Hangouts On Air), video hosting environments (Canvas, YouTube), and digital forms (Canvas Surveys, Google Forms) we can design, assess, and facilitate group project presentations that promote meaningful learning experiences, and positive engagement, in virtual collaborative environments.

Online, IMC 450 students were instructed to use the web conference software of their choice to record their 20 minute online presentations and deliver an mp4 recording or link to their recorded session to the instructor via Canvas, by the end of Week 9. The instructor then combined the recordings into a playlist using the video host of their choice and shared the playlist with all of the students.

Now, instead of moderating a three-hour sync session with 20-plus participants situated all across the country, you’re only committing to roughly one hour of question and answer. Five groups, at 10 minutes of question and answer for each.

Of course, you may be wondering. . . what if some students sit quietly during the sync session and don’t ask any questions? How do I know they watched the videos? What if only one student from the group acts as the spokesperson and answers all of the challenge questions. How do I know if all the group members learned something? The answer is assessment.

With the added convenience of the playlist, students can watch each presentation at least once, and form well-thought out, pointed, and challenging questions for each group. The student then fills out an online survey assessing each group’s presentation as it relates to the curriculum and submits a minimum of three challenge questions, or questions that appear to have gone unanswered by the presentation.

The faculty must quickly review the challenge questions submitted by the students and collate them for each group. The faculty parses these and selects the best challenge questions, distributing them to each group, allowing them a few days to prepare their answers in advance of the final sync session. The instructor may ask any member of the group any these questions, implying they all must be prepared to answer any question.   

In its first run, the faculty did not have a digital assessment form, and there were a few short periods of crickets between questions. The faculty called out a few students who appeared quiet in order to suss questions out of them, and assisted them in articulating relevant and pointed questions. In future versions of this course, students will given the assessment form, and only 3 days to review each group’s presentation, and prepare their well- thought out, challenging questions.

Following the session, the faculty has time before turning in grades to review the other parts of the student assessment to determine how well individual students absorbed course material from the presentation.

In summation, converting the traditional group project presentation from a live event to a recorded event, with the added exercise of peer evaluation, faculty leverage the power of this flipped classroom-style activity in the online environment to make better use of sync session time, and crowdsource the grading and evaluation of peers.

If you would like to apply this process to your group presentation assignments, contact a learning designer to discuss what tools work best for your students, and to create the peer evaluation form that best fits your curriculum and grading rubric.

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