Course Design and Online Group Collaboration — What’s the Connection?


Facilitating group work in an online course for instructors is often the most challenging aspect of teaching an online class. The amount of time invested by students and the instructor in the group process can be significant; unfortunately there’s often more time spent on logistics of the assignment than on meaningful learning. But there is a solution that significantly improves the process and the outcome. It’s course design. Effective course design, which includes the timing, description and instructions for the group project, is a determining factor in the quantity, quality and type of interactivity (Swan, 2001). Facilitation skills of the instructor is another factor, more so when the instructor uses a specific skill set that supports meaningful group interaction. In this post I focus on the course design component. Though I’ve written several posts about group work, I want to share with readers findings from a journal article “Creating Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment” (Brindley, Waiti & Blaschke, 2009) that emphasizes the connection between course design and group effectiveness.

Why a Group Activity?
Before I get to the practical applications I want to examine why creating collaborative assignments is worth the effort. First, there is considerable research that identifies a relationship between participation in collaborative group experiences and deeper learning. There is also a strong relationship between students’ acquisition of communication and collaboration skills (Brindley et al, 2009). Second, creating active learning experiences, and opportunities where “learning is more like a team effort than a solo race” meets two of the seven principles outlined by Chickering and Gamson in their seminal paper “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” (1987).

Five Course Design Strategies that Support Effective Group Collaboration
Effective course design not only leads to more meaningful learning, but also makes facilitating group work easier for instructors; where more time can be spent supporting students’ learning concepts and developing critical thinking skills than on administrative-type logistics. Below are five strategies to consider:

1. Make the Assignment Meaningful, Relevant and Challenging
Students taking online courses are typically juggling multiple responsibilities, work, school and/or family. Their time is valuable, therefore it’s critical that a group assignment is worthwhile, where students see its value and purpose, that it clearly links to the learning objectives, is relevant to real world scenarios and their own experience. The assignment should be complex and encourage students to work together to build knowledge and gain a perspective that they wouldn’t gain by working alone. The definition (below) is by far the best description of the principles of and reasons for group work:

“…collaborative learning situations, students are working in groups of two or more, mutually searching for understanding, solutions, or meanings, or creating a product. There is wide variability in collaborative learning activities, but most center on the students’ exploration or application of the course material, not simply the teacher’s presentation or explication of it. Questions, problems, or the challenge to create something [should] drive the group activity” (Davidson & Major, 2014)

2. Clear Instructions and Transparency of Expectations
Detailed instructions are essential for effective group work, as is a description of the activity’s purpose. If the instructor senses any degree of reluctance on the students’ part, he of she can encourage (via a news post, email, or recorded message) participation and emphasize the purpose of the exercise and the group process. By doing so, students are more likely to see the benefit of the process, and approach the assignment with a higher level of motivation. Clear instructions require details relevant to the assignment, and should include a description of behaviours associated with a contributing team member.

3. Balance Between Structure and Flexibility of Task

Performance expectations of each group member is necessary. As is structuring the assignment so that it is achievable, challenging with enough time for completion. Yet giving learners’ some control over the assignment encourages ownership, responsibility, and increases motivation. Giving control may take the form of students forming their own groups, or allowing students to have a choice of how the groups are formed. Another strategy is including flexibility in the assignment where students can choose the topic, case study or problem scenario. A well-designed course provides parameters for the project, emphasizes its purpose, yet still gives learners an element of control through choice.

4. Timing of Group Activity
Timing of the group activity—how much time the group has to work on the activity as well as the due date plays a significant role in quality of the outcomes.  Sufficient time for classmates to build rapport and establish a ‘presence’ in the class is also needed before group work can begin. Building rapport leads to developing relationships and trust, essential to a group’s effectiveness. Group’s also need adequate time to work on the project; asynchronous group work is challenging due to students’ differing schedules.  It’s also helpful if students submit the project in phases over a period of weeks, e.g. first phase the choice of topic with description, second an initial draft before the final project submission. This provides benchmarks for the group and an opportunity for the instructor to provide feedback.

5.  Provide Suggestions for Technology that Supports Collaboration

How groups communicate in an online course is another determining factor to the groups’ success. Learning and development of critical thinking is less likely to occur when technology is a barrier to communication. Guiding students to the best platforms for communicating synchronously and asynchronously is necessary, as is providing resources on how-to use the technology. Dedicating one section within the group instructions to “How to Communicate” that includes recommendations of platforms and tools is ideal. There are several good (and free) collaborative platforms: Google Docs, Mind42, and Wiggio, as well as brainstorming platforms for sharing ideas, TwiddlaPadlet for example, and synchronous tools for real-time meetings—Google HangoutsSkype or Facetime.

There is a strong connection between effective course design and successful group collaboration. Outcomes of a well-designed group activity result in students acquiring new knowledge, gaining different perspectives, and developing critical thinking and collaboration skills.  In a future post about I’ll write about how to handle the non-contributing group member, which is a challenge for students and the instructor.

Image courtesy of pakorn at


  • Brindley, J. E., Walti, C., & Blaschke, L. M. (2009, June). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning,10(3).  Retrieved from
  • Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education (pp. 3-7, Issue brief). Washington, D.C.: American Association for Higher Education. Retrieved from
  • Swan, K. (2001). Virtual interaction: Design factors affecting students’ satisfaction and perceived learning in asynchronous online courses. Distance Education, 22(2), 306-331. Retrieved

7 thoughts on “Course Design and Online Group Collaboration — What’s the Connection?

  1. I found your post on course design strategies very helpful for use in my instructional design class. You stated that research shows that a relationship between participation in collaborative group experiences leads to deeper learning and that “there is also a strong relationship between students’ acquisition of communication and collaboration skills” (Brindley et al, 2009).
    Another point you made was that in creating active learning experiences the designer should allow for team learning.
    I have learned that course design that is effective leads to a more learning, and makes facilitating group work where the teacher can support learning. You listed five steps to creating more effective learning. I will use these steps in my instructional design to prepare a group activity that fosters collaboration skills.
    1. Make the Assignment Meaningful, Relevant and Challenging
    2. Clear Instructions and Transparency of Expectations
    3. Balance Between Structure and Flexibility of Task
    4. Timing of Group Activity
    5. Provide Suggestions for Technology that Supports Collaboration


    1. Glad you found the post useful. Glad you found the five-steps useful. Group work takes considerable effort upfront in the design phase, but the payoffs are significant when students experience meaningful learning and move towards using critical thinking skills. Thanks for sharing!


  2. Reblogged this on bonsimmons and commented:
    This blog posting may not give me an overall set of professional skills that I can use in instructional design, but it does focus on five important course design strategies to use in the area of developing good interactions that support group collaborations for online courses. I currently teach face-to-face 8th grade math at Red Mountain Middle School in Deming, New Mexico and I will need to know how to use these instructional design strategies when developing online classes for teaching or instructing any class within any class setting. In online courses using effective group collaboration is a key component of not only engaging students but also assessing their learning. Collaboration is a skill that everyone in the 21st century should attain and as a teacher, I should develop lessons that guide my students to deeper learning while developing collaboration skills.


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