The surge in online education has led to questions about group work. This post is going to avoid talking about all the basics of group work such as setting expectations, dealing with lazy students, setting deadlines, etc. because these are principles that apply offline as well as online. Instead, we are going to look at the unique logistical challenges of online group work. Some of these challenges include
Finding ways for group members to communicate is a major challenge when working online. However, it depends on the context. Students may need to communicate synchronously or asynchronously. Synchronous means everyone is together and talking at the same time such as during a conference call. Asynchronously means people communicate but not at the same time such as through a forum/chat.
If all the students are in the same time zone are neighboring ones, it is easy for them to communicate synchronously. However, if students are spread out all over the world finding a convenient time to discuss and work on a project together becomes difficult.
As mentioned earlier, forums/chat are a way for group members to communicate when it’s convenient for them. However, for some, working like this doesn’t feel look group work. This is s subjective view but is something to bear in mind.
A general recommendation to make is that the closer students live near each the more complex the project can be because of the ease of communication (synchronously). However, the converse is also true that the further away students live from each other simpler the project may need to be because of the challenges of communication (asynchronously).
In terms of the tools to use for communication, it’s probably better to have official channels worked out beforehand for the students to lower confusion. Again this is much more important as the students are more spread out geographically. Have all the students signup for whatever tool you pick and then have them use this one. There are so many different tools to choose from that this can be better decided between you and your IT staff.
If the communication is asynchronous, it might not be necessary to use any external tools as most LMS have forums and even a chat feature. If the current tools do not work again it is recommended to consult your IT staff.
The word collaboration in this post means some sort of document(s) that a group has to work on to complete the project. This can be a serious headache if you do not put in place some sort of system through which students can share document(s). What you really want to avoid are students emailing each other copies of the document which quickly falls apart. Another problem that you want to avoid is one student pasting together several documents from different people because there was no collaborating happening when this takes place.
Depending on your school there may already be tools for document collaboration. For example, Google or Microsoft both provide tools for institutions to share documents. The problem is that you as the teacher must learn how to do this and then explain and train all of your students, which is extremely difficult. This is probably one reason why group work in eLearning is talked about but rarely done.
Often, when a project is completed it is shared with the class. Again, if all the students are geographically near each other a live class online is feasible. However, in a situation in which students are spread out this is not possible. This leads to the question of how to have students share what they learned.
The simplest solution is to have students prerecord there presentation. This is then linked inside the LMS so that other students can watch it. You can even require that students leave comments as proof that they watched the presentation. Unfortunately, doing this means that normally only one person gets to present in a group because of the challenges of communication.
Group work online is challenging, however, it can work in certain circumstances. People may disagree but the main challenge is differences in time zones that can impede live communication. When this is missing a lot of critical interaction is missing that is a part of the learning experience. Therefore, online projects are better if they are simply rather than highly complex.