5 Tools and Strategies that Support Group Collaboration Online

Collaboration, where students work towards a common goal, interact and co-create is an essential component of online learning, yet the challenge for the course instructor is how? How can instructors create activities where students collaborate effectively in groups when separated by distance and time? In this post I review strategies for implementing collaborative activities, and review tools that can be effective in supporting students work within their virtual groups. I’ll begin by highlighting why educators might want to consider investing time in creating collaborative activities in the first place.

Why Collaborative Activities?
It takes considerable time and effort to develop group learning activities for the online class, which begs the question, is it worth it?  Absolutely, and for several reasons. One is that group activities in online communities support learning as described in Garrison’s Community of Inquiry (COI) model. According to Garrison’s model students who “collaboratively engage in purposeful, critical discourse and reflection will be more likely to achieve a successful educational experience” (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000).

From another viewpoint, a recently introduced learning theory by Siemens and Downes connectivism, supports the idea that collaboration is critical in our networked world. From this perspective, learning in the digital age is no longer dependent on individual knowledge acquisition, rather it relies on the connected learning that occurs in social networks and group tasks (Brindley, Walti & Blaschke, 2009).

Whether you agree with these above mentioned principles or not, collaborative activities should be included in online learning communities if only for the fact that it ‘forces’ students to engage with peers in a digital context which is a required skill for students and workers of the 21st century.

Strategies for Group Learning Activities
In a previous post Online Groups – Cooperative or Collaborative, I reviewed briefly how to create effective group activities as part of an overall instructional plan, and in the following strategies I focus on practical implementation. I’ve included strategies that I have used in my work with online course development that have proved to be successful in supporting group work.

  • Create Transparency of Expectations and Purpose: Make the activity relevant for students by describing how and why working within a group will help them [the students], and be of benefit. Clarify what is expected in the syllabus. Outline the requirements for participation and the process for participation that includes a description of the online tool(s) students will use for facilitating group communication. Identifying the tool will also allow time for students to become familiar with the application as needed.
  • Provide Clear Instructions: Barriers to successful group work include lack of clear objectives and vague directions. Taking the time to explain the purpose of the activity, providing clear due dates, and outlining instructions is essential. Also, a due date that is near the end of the course is recommended as this allows students to complete the orientation phase and establish relationships within the group.
  • Form Small Groups: Small groups are most effective for online activities – three or four students is ideal. With larger groups [over five participants] students can lurk in the background and not contribute. There is literature for online instruction that suggests it is beneficial to have students create their own groups, though as a student I always preferred that the instructor create the groups.
  • Monitor and Support: It’s important that the instructor be available to answer questions and ‘be there’ for groups, especially for those that are struggling. Holding synchronous video sessions with groups is an effective method of instruction. I experienced this type of support as a student with a difficult group project; it was helpful and appreciated.
  • Include Etiquette Guidelines: Create guidelines for students that outline how to  participate effectively in an online group. Highlight the difference between cooperative work and collaborative work, cooperative is individuals giving input to peers, yet collaborative is group work where ONE product is created, submitted and graded as whole.

Five Collaboration Tools
The tools below are just that – tools that are designed to support group collaboration, which is the discourse that is the means to their learning. For that reason I’ve selected tools that are highly rated, but at the same time are easy to use, with a minimal learning curve. The one exception is BigMarker, I have yet to work with this tool and for that reason I reserve judgement on its ease of use, but it looks promising.

  1. MindMeister:  This tool allows groups to work on one mind map document that can be used in the early phases of group work for planning or brainstorming, or it can be used as the primary collaborative document for the duration of the project depending upon the nature of the assignment. There are numerous templates, mind maps, project planning, SWOT analysis and more. It can be used asynchronously, but also includes a live chat feature.
  2. Google Docs: Another excellent tool given its ease of use, flexibility and comment tools which are conducive to group work. I worked with this tool throughout graduate school for group projects, and still use Google Docs for project management at my workplace. It includes several document types, including Word, Presentation and Excel. It also features live chat.
  3. BigMarker: A new tool, it looks comprehensive, it includes live synchronous video chat (useful for groups wanting to discuss in real-time) with the added capability of recording which can be viewed by group members unable to attend the live chat, and collaborative document sharing similar to Google Docs for asynchronous communication. It looks powerful and promising.
  4. SlideRocket: A top-rated application that creates ‘stunning’ presentations that allows groups to work collectively on one presentation document. The application is easy to embed within discussion forums of the Learning Management System platforms or web pages.  Each document has a unique URL, which can be submitted to the instructor for viewing.
  5. Skype: Tried and true, Skype was one of the first video chat tools offered for free, and is reliable and easy to use. Another benefit is that students are likely to have Skype accounts and be familiar with it. It is a synchronous tool, a negative factor, however in many cases group members can agree upon a convenient time.  Skype is also an effective tool for course instructors to have video meetings with groups or individual students to discuss progress or concerns.

Collaborative group work is present in any workplace, face-to-face college classroom or K12 institution. Implementing group work activities in online learning is necessary, almost a given in today’s learning climate, though it is challenging due to time and space barriers. With thoughtful instructional design and implementation strategies, and use of tools that support student communication seamlessly, online students can benefit from the enhanced learning and skill development that group collaboration can offer.

Resources
Collaborative Learning, R.I.T. Online Learning
The Importance of Collaboration in Higher Ed, opensource.com

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