Student Perceptions of Online Group Work: What They Really Think and How to Make it Work

This is the third post in a three-part series featuring strategies and skill development for instructors wanting to create, facilitate and encourage collaboration among students working in groups. This post identifies what students really think about group work—the three most significant barriers to working in online teams and strategies to help students overcome each.

Young Couple Sitting with a Pile of Books

Success of the group learning process is dependent upon the target outcomes of the assignment and design of the collaboration activity

 “Working with other people on a real project can actually be a valuable learning experience. The problem is, if it’s mandated by school, and participants aren’t really interested or motivated, that’s not a “real project.”  If there was a way to facilitate projects that were relevant to participants’ interests, and perhaps some kind of meaningful output, that would likely result in a different kind of experience.” Student comment on the School Survival Forums [an uncensored forum for students created by students in 2001]

It’s a myth that students in online courses don’t want group work. Most students see the value of working in groups, but are resistant when the project appears unrelated to course goals, is simplistic, without a purpose—busywork.  When introducing and writing instructions for group activities, I emphasize the why of the activity—what’s in it for the students. I’ve outlined other strategies below focusing on the three most significant barriers to group work based upon research of group work specific to online learning, and personal experience as an educator and student.

Meaningful Learning
Before getting to the strategies for overcoming barriers to team work, I’ll point out what’s needed to highlight the what’s in-it-for-me part of the assignment descriptions for students, what I refer to as the marketing element or selling of the group work. The assignments need to be weighty, not necessarily in grades but in terms of complexity; projects that encourage students to synthesize, analyze and create a product that showcases their knowledge via a ‘meaningful output’ as mentioned by the above-quoted student.

A meaningful output might be a group essay, a narrated slideshare, Prezi presentation, a video, or wiki—also known as digital artifacts. The slide below from the slidesharestudent perception of collaborative small group projects using synchronous and asynchronous tools” outlines the elements of a problem based learning approach, necessary to foster meaningful and authentic learning via collaborative learning environments that are designed to develop expertise by helping learners discern patterns and create meaning in a non-static, collaborative setting. According to “How People Learn” (Bransford et al, 1999), such environments encourage the development of deep factual knowledge bases where knowledge is easily retrieved and shared, and conceptual frameworks built.

Screen Shot 2014-02-23 at 1.00.49 PM

Slideshare: ‘Student perception of collaborative small group projects using synchronous and asynchronous tools’ slide #4  (Wicks, 2011)

Significant Barriers to Group Work and How to Overcome Each

 “I feel sometimes you have to give in to some other people’s ideas so that you    can finish the project.” (An, Kim & Kim, 2008)

“I like working in efficient groups. Not many groups I’ve been in were as such. Most we’re “Hey, who doing the work?” or “You just do x-y-z, and we’ll stand here” Student comment on School Survival Forums

1.  Accountability

…among the factors that either facilitated or impeded progress, individual accountability was perceived as being the most critical factor. A lack of individual accountability is consistent with what Latane et al. (1979, cited in Levine, Resnick, & Higgins, 1993) referred to as “social loafing.” This term was defined as meaning that when individuals think they are working in a group, they anticipate doing less work than when they think they are working alone.” (An, Kim & Kim, 2008)

Suggestions:

  • Have students create a team charter. The charter includes the purpose of the group, the rules and guidelines for group interactions, using their words, rules and guidelines.  See example  below right:
Screen Shot 2014-02-24 at 12.36.09 PM

Sample of Group Charter, slide # 13, from Slideshare ‘Student perception of collaborative small group projects’ (Wicks, 2011)

  • Provide an outlet for students to get help with group collaboration and conflict. Include on the course site steps to effective group work, and steps to resolves issues.
  • Create small groups – ideal size is three or four students, maximum five.
  • Provide a mechanism for students to give feedback and reflection on group participation and the experience overall. Readers that have read several of my other posts on group work, may see that this contradicts my views on group work (my initial position was to have self-reflection only, not rate other groups members), however research says otherwise, and I do see that a carefully facilitated method where students submit to the instructor, evaluations of other team members that is kept private, and not shared with other members in the team,  addresses this barrier.  See below the form used by online instructor Larry Ragan from Penn State World Campus.
Screen Shot 2014-02-16 at 2.00.53 PM

Screen shot from open course, “Best Practices in Online Teaching”, by Larry Ragan

#2  Technology

“Participants indicated that the challenges inherent to virtual communication relying solely on written language was the second highest impeding factor (19%). Although online communities can provide a supportive context that makes new kinds of learning experiences possible (Bruckman, 1998), online faculty need to consider the inherent limitations of asynchronous, written communication. Because of the challenges of its usage (time lags, lack of spontaneity), and the dependence on the written word, a number of students indicated that they were overwhelmed, especially when they faced conflicts and when they felt isolated from the group.” (An, Kim & Kim, 2008)

 Suggestions:

  • Provide recommendations and guidelines for one or two tools that facilitate group collaboration that are user-friendly and foster seamless collaboration. Group discussion boards don’t have enough features, and students often find the discussion threads overwhelming and difficult to follow. Google Docs is an example of very good collaborative tool.
  • Recommend groups schedule at least one synchronous discussion during the course of the project using a platform such as Google Hangouts, Skype, or a new video conversation tool appear.in.
  • Provide orientation to course site and tools. The institution should create and offer a course that introduces the student to the learning platform, and the features and tools within it. The institution should also highlight to students within the course site the help services available for technical and trouble shooting solutions.
  • Where possible, encourage group members to be in similar time zones to facilitate synchronous communication (a three-hour time difference or less).

#3  Leadership

“Another noteworthy response is related to the perceived role of the group leaders. Having a positive group leader was recorded as the third highest facilitative factor (16%), while the absence of this factor was believed to have negatively impacted the completion of collaborative tasks (5.9%). For our study, it should be also noted that the course instructor merely suggested that each team elect a team leader, rather than making this a requirement.” (An, Kim & Kim, 2008)

Suggestions and Comments:

  • Recommend that the group select a project or team leader. Though I’ve seen some instructors select the group leader, I suggest having the group determine their own roles. In the long run this creates more autonomy and trust within the group, even more so when done in conjunction with the creation of a team charter as mentioned above. A shared leadership role is also possible.
  • The need for leadership in groups working asynchronously is more acute given the nature of the medium.

Further Reading

References

3 thoughts on “Student Perceptions of Online Group Work: What They Really Think and How to Make it Work

  1. Pingback: Student Perceptions of Online Group Work: What They Really Think and How to Make it Work | nifty jock

  2. I truly agree with the point that this myth that understudies in online courses doesn’t need aggregation work. Most people see the quality of working in gatherings, yet are safe when the undertaking seems pointless to course objectives, and are shortsighted, without a reason busywork. Your post pointed out the right things, I reblogged it at http://www.fastdegreesonline.org/speed-up-your-professional-life-with-fast-online-degrees/

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