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.

Instructor Presence in the Online Classroom

Teacher Presence: A given in the face-to-face classroom (flickr - CC)

Establishing instructor presence in the online classroom is one of the many challenges for the teacher in the online environment. Is it possible to establish a sense of ‘being there’, a climate for learning and student engagement  while not being physically ‘there’? In my last post we saw an excellent video introducing the concept –  let’s dig in a bit further.

From a student’s perspective
First, let me describe how I would define instructor presence from a student’s perspective. I’ve taken several online courses, and currently I’m enrolled in two. I’ve felt when a prof is there and part of the class, and when the prof is MIA [missing in action] or in absentia. Let me use an analogy of a ghost town to help describe it – a ghost town has the facade of a ‘normal’ town, but is empty – eerie and … lonely. This is what it can feel like when logging onto a course home page, without an instructor being involved, it seems empty  :(.

The online classroom without instructor presence - similar to a Ghost Town (istock image)

This sense of non-instructor involvement can be somewhat unnerving for the student, and potentially overwhelming all at the same time.  I do realize that most  professors may be completely unaware of how their students feel. Hence my effort to explain it – though professor presence is a rather elusive concept.

The Instructor’s Role
The instructor’s role is critical to learning, whether in the face-to-face classroom or online. Studies on distance learning supports the assumption that instructor-to-student, and student-to-student (social presence) interaction is a critical component of learning, and an important factor in learner satisfaction, which leads to learning effectiveness. According to research by Blignaut and Trollip, “Being silent [the instructor] in an online classroom is equivalent to being invisible” and “presence requires action”.

How to Create Online Presence
Though not a tremendous amount of research in this area, there are some solid resources to draw from. As mentioned in previous posts, the book from Jossey Bass, Creating a Sense of Presence in Online Learning  is a good place to start. Below are several other suggestions from available literature:

  • Online instructors’ participation in the online course discussion threads is essential.
  • As stated by one instructor, “When you teach in the classroom, you talk; when you teach online, you participate in threaded discussions. If an instructor is not participating in the threaded discussions, the course becomes a correspondence event rather than an online learning experience.”
  • Use announcement forums or professor news board [within your lms] to communicate with students collectively throughout each week – this helps maintain the focus on learning objectives.
  • Use email, Skype, video messages and/or  feedback on student submitted assignments for instructor-student communication.
  • Instructor presence in the online classroom requires careful planning and foresight, at the earliest stages of course development.
  • Further to the above comment, creating instructor or teaching presence, involves creating a carefully designed course (see diagram below) involving opportunities for interaction and feedback. Threaded discussions are a backbone to interaction.
Published on EdTechTalk (

Engaging Students in Online Learning – Video Series

An excellent, to-the-point video geared to instructors teaching in online environments. Addresses which pedagogical approaches are most appropriate and effective for online learning.

Created by COFA.Online (College of Fine Arts, University of South Wales), this video is one of a series of free professional development videos [32 in all], designed to familiarize teachers and instructors with strategies and techniques for successful online learning.  provides the most comprehensive and sound series of development videos I’ve found on the Web. Click here for more videos in the Learning to Teach Online series.

Keep Learning. 🙂

What is Online Presence?

Laptop PictureWhat is online presence?
If you ask a student of online learning to define ‘instructor presence’ in the context of an asynchronous online course, you won’t get a textbook definition – but  will likely hear phrases such as [the prof is] “really busy”, “not answering my emails”, or “missing in action”, “absent”.  These are actual phrases I’ve heard from fellow classmates in online courses I’ve taken and from students I know taking online courses. Online presence is elusive – yet, as we’ve identified, students can sense when the prof is not present –  hellooooo – is anyone there?

I am exaggerating – somewhat – but as online educators we need to take this concept seriously, define and understand what online presence is, and then CREATE online presence in our courses if we want courses that support higher order thinking skills and effective learning outcomes. Inherent to online learning are challenges and opportunities – but the potential is great for reaching students not able to take course(s) otherwise.

Online Presence – Defined
There are several definitions of online presence, but I think the best term to describe online presence is ‘being there’ and ‘being together’ (Creating a Sense of Presence in Online Teaching). Students learn best when the technology becomes transparent, in other words when the tools  (i.e. laptop, learning management system) that bring the learning to the student, fade into the background. Online learning should not about the technology but about the learning interactions – and being there.

Three Dimensions of Online Learning
Community of Inquiry Model, 'Cognitive Presence for Effective Asynchronous Learning', Garrison

Three Dimensions
We can examine online presence from three dimensions: social presence, cognitive presence and teaching presence. By incorporating the three dimensions into an online course – true and authentic learning is possible with higher order thinking skills engaged. Below I briefly address teaching presence, and I’ll cover social and cognitive presence in later posts. The diagram to the left illustrates how the three dimensions intersect to create the educational experience, though I prefer to state is as the student’s successful achievement of learning outcomes.

Teaching Presence
Instructing a class of students in an online environment takes a completely different set of skills and tactics than face-to-face teaching, online teaching is unique in that students are in a different time and space than the professor, yet require structure and guidance. This is where the role of the online instructor comes in – guiding and structuring and communicating.  Check back for other posts this week on strategies and more ideas for creating teaching presence!

How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School, (2000), Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education