Why we need group work in Online Learning

This post is 1st in a 3 part series on the topic of group work in online learning communities. Post 2 will be about strategies for effective group work, and post 3, successful evaluation and outcomes.

Group work. Students groan when they find out there’s a group assignment that’s part of the grading for a given class [ I’m no exception]. Students learning online don’t feel much different, and given the time and distance barriers, it presents even more challenges for these students. What is it about group work that is so distasteful? Many students cite lack of cooperation, work equity and dependency on others as major factors in disliking team work with classmates. Ironically, this is precisely why group work is essential for learning.

The future IS Collaboration
Collaboration goes beyond, two or more people working together towards a common goal – in today’s terms,  collaboration is about open, learning, relationships, sharing and innovation. Though there are numerous benefits to groups working together in an online learning community, below I’ve highlighted the three most important reasons (I think) why group work is essential to any e-learning environment.

1. Essential skills for the 21st Century
Nothing describes ‘why’ collaboration is needed than a living example – of several, I chose Atlassian as an illustration, an innovative software company featured in Forbes Magazine this past month, who’s $100 million business is built on the concept creating collaboration platforms for companies. The client list is impressive, and company executives “are serious about spreading the idea of collaboration and transparency in how people work and how companies are fun”.

Another organization P21, advocates 21st century skill development and claims that employers identify that it is “Critical thinking and problem solving, creativity and innovation, collaboration, and communication skills [that] will become more important in a fast-paced, competitive global economy.

Collaborative skills, developed through effective communication in online environments is, and will be essential to workplaces in the 21st century.

2. Innovation and growth
I won’t elaborate too much here, this short, but clever video illustrates beautifully why collaboration is fundamental to creativity, innovations and development.

Where do Ideas come From?  by Steven Johnson

3. Social and Active Learning
Learners learn, really learn when they engage with classmates, when they connect, share, communicate and collaborate with each other. Learning from and through peers is a dimension of learning both in the class and online that is often negated. In previous posts, I’ve also discussed the need for social presence as one of three dimensions of the Community of Inquiry model, which is foundational to successful group work. Students’ ability to express themselves confidently online is necessary for effective team learning.

Further more, time and again we see examples of active learning, where students learn through purposeful, and planned group activities. Harvard Professor, Eric Mazur is an advocate for peer learning, and incorporates this pedagogy into his own instruction, as well as giving seminars to colleagues across the country about his methods. You can read more about Mazur’s [social learning] approach in Twilight of the Lecture – an interesting read.

This innovative style of learning grew into “peer instruction” or “interactive learning,” a pedagogical method that has spread far beyond physics and taken root on campuses nationally. Last year, Mazur gave nearly 100 lectures on the subject at venues all around the world. (His 1997 book Peer Instruction is a user’s manual).  Harvard Magazine, 2012

For e-learning and online educators, incorporating group work into courses is a non-negotiable, given the demands and needs for collaboration and [online] communication skills. Check back early next week for post 2, strategies for creating effective group work online.