Strategies for effective group work in the Online Class

This is the second post in a three part series on group work in online learning communities. Post one, featured why we need group work in online learning,  and post three will be on how to evaluate group work in online assignments.

Quick recap –  why oh why do we need to create opportunities for collaboration and structured learning  in an online class? Because…

  1. Collaboration is the future—collaborative skills are essential skills for the 21st century.
  2. Working with others builds upon existing knowledge. Great ideas were not created in vacuum —post one includes an excellent video about. We need innovators in the 21s century.
  3. Learning now more than ever needs to be social and active. Our culture is about connecting with people using digital and social media, why can’t learning happen this way?

Groups—my Dual Viewpoint
I’ve experienced group work from the inside and out. From the inside, through my fully online graduate program of which I’m a student, where I’ve had (and have) group work in every class. Group assignments contribute anywhere between 20%, and as much as 100% to the final grade.

Concurrently, I’ve worked with groups on the outside, working with professors extensively to create assignments and collaborative activities for students in several online classes at my work place. Each perspective has assisted the other, which helped me to create a pretty comprehensive list of strategies for making groups work…

What Makes Group Work
The group experience can either be painful or refreshing, constructive and enjoyable,  fortunately my experiences have been positive (except for one group disaster, though this in itself provided an authentic learning experience), in fact, I would say that group work has challenged me to learn and grow in ways I would not be able to do solo.

I’ve compiled a list of essential strategies for setting up groups for successful interaction and meaningful learning that the online instructor or instructional designer might find helpful.

  1. Create a student introductory forum in the first week, or even a few days before the course start date. Frame the activity so learners introduce themselves to other learners, by writing one or two paragraphs about themselves, interests, hobbies etc, and then have them respond to at least two other classmates in the forum.  When Learners feel connected, the barrier of the technological infrastructure comes down, (in most cases the learning management platform).  Learners are establishing a social presence, and feel they are becoming part of a community. I cannot underestimate the importance of this activity. The social presence is a dimension necessary in the online ‘space’ which can be intangible and hard to define for the learner.
  2. Make it real – have learners upload profile pictures of themselves through the learning management platform. Most LMS platforms have this capability. It’s amazing what picture can do to help make a personal connection.
  3. Announce groups early in the session, Group work in online environments, often takes more time to establish group tasks and objectives. Building in at least three weeks time for groups to work on a small-scale assignment is reasonable, obviously the more complex the assignment the more time is needed. As far as assigning groups, my preference is to have the instructor create the groups. One method to creating groups is to observe how students relate to others within the introduction forum. Often students make ‘connections’ with common interests. Another strategy is create groups balancing out experienced online students, with first time online learners. Again this can be identified through the introductory forums.
  4. Encourage group members to make contact early on – create a group discussion board within the LMS dedicated to each group, or a chat room – encourage members to connect, even through outside media, i.e. Facebook, Google+ etc.
  5. Create clear instructions for the  group project. This also is essential. Here is my rule of thumb, if you dedicate three pages in a traditional class syllabus to instructions for assignments, you will need double the number of pages in an online class. Students require clear, specific directions, explanation of ‘why’ they are doing the assignment (see next point).
  6. Highlight the Purpose: When we design group activities in our online classes at my workplace, we are cognizant of giving an explanation to the learner that outlines why they are doing this activity, what they will learn by doing so, why the activity is created for group . No one wants to do ‘busy work’ and students will respond far more positively when they see how the assignment fits in with the course and how they will benefit personally.
  7. Limit Group Size: The ideal group size for online is three or four group members. Though I’ve seen groups of five, from experience it appears that when there are more than four participants, it is not uncommon for one or more group members who tend to be on the lazy side, to fade into the virtual world and not contribute. Smaller group sizes make this phenomenon less likely to occur.
  8. Web 2.0 filosofiaren kontzeptuak.

    Web 2.0 filosofiaren kontzeptuak. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    Encourage teams to collaborate with online applications outside of the LMS environment. A blog reader, a communications professor shared a strategy that got me thinking – why keep the students within the LMS platform? The tools in most LMS platforms are not conducive to effective group work (as I lamented in this post). This professor ‘forced’ her students to use Web 2.0 tools outside the platform, for example Google Docs, Dropbox, Skype, Google + ( which has a great feature of Google + hangouts). I like her strategy.  In order for this to be effective I would suggest providing the teams with a list of web 2.0 tools and links for accessing various tools, and ideally with basic instructions and/or ‘how-to’ links about each tool included as well. This is an extra step, but don’t assume students are familiar with collaborative applications. Some students may have a steep learning curve, another reason why the lead time for given assignments is helpful.

  9. Be available for concerns and questions. Encourage students to contact the instructor for concerns and/or guidance. I even suggest going the extra step to arrange for Skype or conference calls with a given group if needed. I’ve had a professor who arranged for two Skype meetings with a group I was part of, when we were struggling with an assignment and way off track. I can’t tell you how much this supported our group and created cohesion and motivation within. When an instructor is involved and supportive of teams, higher levels of learning are more likely to be the result.
  10. Be culturally sensitive. As I write this, I realize that some suggestions will not work in all cultures.  Instructors need to be sensitive to different communication styles and access to tools for various students. This article, provides some helpful info for those interested in reading more about this, as does this one, Techniques and strategies for International group work: An online experience.

Group work, when used to support learning goals in the e-learning environment, is most effective  in creating meaningful learning, and developing communication and collaboration  skills so very much in demand in our current digital culture and global economy.  Check back later this week for post three, how to evaluate group work in the online environment.

31 thoughts on “Strategies for effective group work in the Online Class

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  7. Nitin Tummala

    This is a good post regarding group work that needs to be done in online classes. From my experience of online classes, the points that were mentioned seemed pretty impressive and I felt that these should have or must be incorporated in all the online classes.
    The explanation or the points that were mentioned regarding the synchronization and work between groups are very effective not only in online classes but in any collaborative work that is being done online.
    Overall having some sort of interaction and orientation before hand is always useful in the online classes and as per the statistics 60% of the students enroll in classes where they live within 100 miles from the university they enroll in. This provides a great oppurtunity for them to meet in person.
    Limiting the group size and assigning the groups is another important aspect in online classes since it gives them the time to adjust and will also makes them to feel free in future interactions.
    Overall a good post regarding group work.


  8. Karthik Jayaraman

    Very good post by the author. I would like to endorse some important factors that you mentioned.

    a. Trust – Apart from personal benefit, community related considerations are some of the most important factors that motivates individual to share their knowledge in the group. As you said, if the team members can get to know each other, the group and the community as a whole will definitely help in succeeding as a group.

    b. Use of technology: Personally and from my analysis, use of technology like Google hangouts for group video sessions, Docs for collaborative editing of documents would make a drastic change in how people learn collaboratively. It would help the group members to share their ideas effectively and to a certain extent help in overcoming the biggest hurdle in online learning – the absence of interaction.

    c. Teacher-Student engagement: The primary reason attributed to the failure of online-learning communities is the lack of teacher student interaction. As you mentioned, the instructors presence will have a drastic difference in group cohesion and motivation and would definitely increase student involvement and participation in the discussion.

    d. Cultural Sensitivity: One important aspect of learning learning that makes it stand apart from the classroom based learning is the possibility of having diverse student groups. The diversity in the group can be exemplified through cultural diversity, knowledge diversity, domain diversity etc. But the problem with cultural diversity is that it is sensitive. Also, as you mentioned there might not be a one-stop solution for the entire group in terms of teaching mechanism, communication style etc.

    Also technology should be infused in the learning to overcome various short-comings of group-based online learning and help students transition from traditional classroom based learning to an online based collaborative learning.


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  11. sandy price

    I found my way here as an instructor who’s been teaching in an online format for a number of years, and whose students are primarily upper division or grad students. I do every single one of the things you’ve mentioned there – ALL OF THEM – and here we are at the eve of the first group assignment due date, and students are – predictably – pummeling me with notices that their group members aren’t responding, showing up for online meetings, doing their share, etc. I’m at my wits’ end.


    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      Hi Sandy,
      Most frustrating I am sure. I have a couple of suggestions – and I will use one of my graduate classes as a student as an example for how the professor handled just what you are speaking of that may be of help. And what you are describing is typical – and happened in our class. Here is how our prof handled it.

      – Group sizes. Groups were limited to four people. Ideal group sizes are three, and four max.
      – He provided several key deliverable dates for the one assignment due at end of the class -i.e. second week the outline of assignment, the third week sources to use —- and so on.
      – Each group had their own discussion board – (which he monitored at the beginning). The Prof followed up with one of our groups members in week three that had contributed very little to date, that student ended up dropping the class.
      – the Prof held Skype meetings with groups that had a poor first assignment, or with groups that had non-participating group members (that the students hold told them about).
      – The prof posted weekly announcements – which suggested he was reading our discussion boards.
      – We had peer review at the end of the course that each of us completed and sent to professor that rated the contributions of the group members. These were confidential – and graded – and it helped alleviate the idea that those that did more work would be compensated in grade more than those that didn’t.

      Another thing, I would suggest telling groups not to wait to the last minute to tell you that their group members were not participating. An email or phone call from you to the non-participating groups member by be helpful. Other than that if a group member had no contribution to a project, that person’s grade would be adjusted accordingly which you can communicate in your guidelines for the assignment.

      Hope that helps!


      1. sandy price

        Debbie, thanks for your comments. I already do ALL of that. If I didn’t, it would be worse. I’ve taught online courses at two universities. One of them has many online classes, and does student orientation for online learning, and also does some amount of helping students weed themselves out when they most likely will not be able to function independently (yet, hopefully) to realize that they are probably best served in a classroom environment. They also offer around-the-clock IT help, because they understand that online students work at odd hours (50 % of all posting to my online classroom happens after 10 p.m. at night and into the wee hours). The other school has very few online classes, no resource to orient or assist students, and its IT help desk is open only from 8 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday. You might imagine that the students in the first environment were much better prepared for online learning and I had a much better retention and satisfaction rate. The students at the second institution, despite my own efforts to prep them for what was coming, do not fare as well. And I waste many, many hours that could be better spent chasing down these students in the first few weeks of class, trying to help them adjust to online learning. The university has been through a series of online learning experts, but they seem far more interested in training the educators than in providing support systems for the students. VENTED. Thanks.


        1. Debbie Morrison Post author

          Hi Sandy,
          No wonder you are frustrated! You bring up an excellent point – that students need to have a set of skills before they begin online learning, and to have an orientation of some sort to the course home page itself. And as you mentioned, the focus needs to be on the student. What we found helpful in my role in online curriculum developer at a four-year college, was an orientation module that we [instructional design team] created for all online courses in our program that included: a welcome message, recommended reading (online syllabus, policies) and tools to become familiar that were part of the students’ online classroom. It included a quiz that was customized to each course of various questions about the course home page, who to contact for tech help, course content help, etc. The students could take the quiz as many times as they wanted.
          This helped reduce the number of question each professor received at the beginning of each course significantly. Perhaps the online programs for the schools you work might consider implementing such a program at some point.
          Best, Debbie


  12. Aziz Salafi

    I’ve already started using some of these strategies in my Facebook learning page. Thanks a lot. Please, if you have time visit my page and send me your comments via ContactMe tool.


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  14. ali abrahim

    Students in the century united the twenty Thanks to Science in invented among sided communication between the day-to-tomorrow in connecting media link from east to west and from south of the northern Yes link now, you from bed to the world of outer space continued to continue direct contact our time connecting is favorites knows sciences can enjoying our time by your relationship Strategies for effective group work in the Online Class best future by differences ideas planning


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