How-to Make Group Work Collaborative In Online Courses: Four Strategies

“CL (collaborative learning) occurs when small groups of students help each other to learn. CL is sometimes misunderstood. It is not having students talk to each other, either face-to-face or in a computer conference, while they do their individual assignments. It is not having them do the task individually and then have those who finish first help those who have not yet finished. And it is certainly not having one or a few students do all the work, while the others append their names to the report (Klemm, W.R., 1994).” (Laal & Laal, 2012).

iStock_groupcollaborationXSmall
Group Collaboration

Providing interactive learning opportunities in online courses is frequently cited as a best practice by institutions offering distance education—Penn StateUniversity of Illinois and Grand Rapids Community College are three of many examples. Yet I know from experience on both sides, as a student and educator, the challenges of functioning within and facilitating collaborative learning activities—group work especially.  In theory, collaborative learning is a sound idea given the numerous studies that suggest the benefits of students learning from and with each other by sharing ideas and perspectives:

…Samuel Totten (1991) who claims that: The shared learning gives learners an opportunity to engage in discussion, take responsibility for their own learning, and thus become critical thinkers. (Laal & Laal, 2012)

And:

Palloff and Pratt (2005) suggest that online courses that are rich with student interactivity facilitate the development of critical thinking skills, better learning, socialized intelligence, and reflection.  (Zygouris-Coe, 2012)

Yet all too often students’ experiences in small virtual groups contrived for the purpose of creating group learning experiences, result in frustration and even resentment. It’s no wonder educators often question whether group work is worth the aggravation. Is student collaboration really necessary for learning? And if it is, how can it be successful?

This post aims to offer support and resources for readers looking for answers to these questions; I incorporate research from four recent papers on group work and collaboration in online learning environments specifically that shed light on the realities of contrived collaborative activities for students. One in particular, “Seven problems of online group learning (and their solutions)” (Roberts & McInnerney, 2007) provides practical and helpful suggestions for course designers developing group activities and for instructors facilitating group work. Another, “Collaborative learning: what is it?” (Laal & Laal, 2012) is particularly helpful and applicable to educators; it clarifies what collaborative learning looks like and describes in detail the required elements.

Group Work for Closed Courses not MOOCs
This post outlines essential conditions for group work in online learning environments and suggests four strategies that hone in on the key components needed to create collaborative activities specific to closed, online courses, not MOOCs. In my experience with Massive Open Online Courses, it is not possible, nor desirable for instructors to require or mandate class activities where students collaborate in small groups. Collaboration in MOOCs is ideally student-driven, in keeping with the pedagogy of massive courses. In small, closed and for-credit online courses, the pedagogical approach is different—it requires involvement of the instructor, and a more structured learning environment and activities that support specific learning objectives typically associated with for-credit courses.

Learning Theory and Demand Behind Group Work
Before discussing practical strategies, it’s worthy to examine how group work became an accepted practice in education. The idea that students need to work together to learn, stems from several learning theorists including Piaget, Dewey and Bruner. The premises of their theories are that learning is active, and knowledge is constructed through interaction with the environment (constructivism). Building on the constructivist premise is social learning, where learning happens through active engagement with others (Vgostsky). Yet the concept of students needing to work in groups to learn, is not the only driver of group work in online spaces. The other is the idea that students of today require a unique skill set to work, engage and collaborate as global (and digital) citizens. Businesses also demand that employees be team players, have excellent communication skills that includes working virtually in teams, as well as proficiency with digital platforms. Recently the Wall Street Journal featured an article about companies that seek employees who are able to collaborate with colleagues anywhere in the world, often without ever meeting in person (Rubenfire, 2014). These factors contribute to the perceived need to provide learning opportunities for online students that involve small groups.

Group Work: Cooperation versus Collaboration
Two concepts frequently used interchangeably when discussing group work is cooperation and collaboration. Though each concept is distinct; each suggests a different level of learning in practice. I suggest that both exist on a continuum of student interaction in online environments, with students ‘discussing’ a topic (in a forum for instance) on one end, and ‘collaborating’ where students work and learn as a team—creating for example, a final product interdependently that represents their knowledge construction, on the other.  In their paper, Laal & Laal define each:

  • Cooperation is a structure of interaction designed to facilitate the accomplishment of a specific end product or goal through people working together in groups;
  • Collaboration is a philosophy of interaction and personal lifestyle where individuals are responsible for their actions, including learning and respect the abilities and contributions of their peers. (2012, p. 494).

In most instances, group work in online courses is cooperative at best. Small group exchanges within online courses were examined and discussed in the paper “How much “group” is there in online group work” where students interactions were categorized as: 1) parallel, 2) associative and 3) cooperative interactions (Lowes, 2000, p. 4). Only one group of the five examined approached the higher level of cooperation. However, there are methods and strategies educators (and their institutions) can implement to move students along the continuum of group learning towards the collaborative. There are several conditions necessary for cooperative and collaborative learning identified in the literature referenced in this post—summarized below.

Required Conditions for Cooperative and/or Collaborative Learning in Closed Online Learning Environments

  • Dialogue amongst students is a fundamental component of the group activity; assignments should be designed to encourage discussion and brainstorming (asynchronous and synchronous) rather than a division of labour. One paper suggests that group assignments be constructed for “positive interdependence” where each group member contribution is unique and indispensable (Lowes, p. 12) though examples are not given
  • Understanding of the purpose of the activity—achieved by communicating to students why group work is necessary, e.g. sharing how the project aligns to the learning goals, how students will benefit
  • Access to digital platform(s) and tools that support online collaboration—for discussion, creation of final product, etc. e.g. Google Docs, Google Hangouts
  • Support for students unfamiliar with collaboration platform & tools
  • Guidelines that outline: student expectations, netiquette, procedure to deal absent group member(s), assessment methods, examples of collaborative exchanges between students, team roles, etc.
  • Instructor (and institution) efforts aimed at developing and supporting student skill set for cooperation, collaboration and working in teams
  • Instructor involvement to address non-contributing group members, group challenges, etc.
  • Inclusion of an assessment mechanism on two levels—group and individual

Four Strategies for Instructors (and Institutions) That Support Online Group Work

1. Design a Group Assignment that is complex, that challenges students to apply and discuss course content using multiple perspectives to solve a problem or develop a solution. Include expectations, purpose and clear instructions about how students can collaborate and provide feedback to each other. (Lowes, 2007, p. 12)

2. Model and support the development of collaborative skills • Develop collaborative learning protocols and establish clear expectations about student and instructor roles • Promote student self-monitoring of learning through progress reports, feedback, discussion forums, virtual student-instructor conferences  Cover the skills required at the beginning of the course… An extensive list of ideas in “Collaborative learning in an online teacher education course: lessons learned” (Coe, 2012, p. 339)

3. Facilitate and be involved in group activities.Closely monitor group discussion boards to identify student involvement at beginning of group work, contact students not participating early in the group process.  Collect ongoing data on student progress.

4.  Make the assessment criteria explicit. “Several effective solutions may be employed to do exactly as Webb suggests, that is, to measure group productivity and to measure the individual students’ abilities within the group. Exactly which of the solutions is the most
appropriate will depend upon the circumstances.” (Roberts & McInnerney, 2007, p. 263).

Closing
There is no formula for creating effective group learning opportunities in closed online courses, yet there are shared experiences from educators and academics that provide a starting point as outlined in this post. I encourage readers to share their own experiences, ideas and suggestions for facilitating group interactivity either here with other readers, on other social media platforms or with colleagues. What works and what doesn’t?

References:

Laal, M. & Laal, M. (2011). Collaborative learning: What is it? Social and Behavioral Sciences 31: 491 – 495. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042811030217

Lowes, S. (2014). How much “group” is there in online group work? Journal Of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 18(1). Retrieved from http://jaln.sloanconsortium.org/index.php/jaln/article/view/373/82

Roberts, T. S. & McInnerney, J. M. (2007). Seven problems of online group learning (and their solutions). Educational Technology and Society 10(4): 257-268. Retrieved from http://www.ifets.info/journals/10_4/22.pdf

Zygouris-Coe, V. (2012). Proceedings from ICITE 2012: Collaborative Learning in an Online Teacher Education Course: Lessons Learned. Rhodes, Greece. Retrieved from http://www.icicte.org/Proceedings2012/Papers/08-4-Zygouris-Coe.pdf

Five Essential Skills Instructors Need to Facilitate Online Group Work & Collaboration

five_bayLeaves_istockThis is the second post in a three-part series featuring strategies and skill development for instructors wanting to create, facilitate and encourage collaboration among students working in groups. The strategies discussed in this series are specific to closed, small, online, for-credit courses, though the principles discussed regarding student needs’ and barriers to group work online are universal to almost all formats of online learning experiences.

“Specific strategies are needed to effectively implement online group projects. These included such things as how to help the students get to know one another, form groups, assign grades, explain group functions, use online tools to maximize interaction, and how to deal with non-participation of group members…”  Facilitation of Online Group Projects: Insights from Experienced Faculty Members (2012)

Facilitating group collaboration in an online course is no doubt the most challenging facet of teaching in an online space; the skills required go way beyond teaching and sharing one’s area of expertise. In the last post I wrote about the elements needed to create a foundation for effective group collaboration online—in this post I outline five core skills online instructors need to be effective leaders of group learning assignments.

My aim with this post is to outline for readers the skills instructors need to facilitate online collaboration in small, closed classes, and to provide specifics on how to implement and develop the skill set through examples, instructions and resources. This post delves into the elements of group collaboration and expands on the instructor’s role by fleshing out the core skills—not just as a subject matter expert, but as a leader of learning.

I’ve listed a number of open resources specific to each of the five skills below, and there is one resource that I’ve drawn upon frequently, Best Practices in Online Teaching by Larry Raglan from Penn State World Campus. It’s an open resource on the Connexions platform, and I highly recommend it for instructors wanting to develop their online teaching skills further. Post three of this series will focus on student needs’, their perceptions of online group work, and a list of resources and tools to set students up for success.

“Faculty members perceive group work as an essential tool for students’ future professional lives.Exemplar quote:  “Even though it [group projects] can be painful for students and painful for faculty, I’m absolutely sold on the benefit of it. I think it fosters time management skills …They may find themselves having to collaborate with peers in another facility in town. They may be in another state to present something locally [or] nationally. I just think those skills are absolutely essential in today’s technology, we don’t just communicate via phone or face-to-face….”  (Williams et al., 2012)

Getting Started: The paper I’ve quoted frequently in this series, and which the above quote is drawn from, Facilitation of Online Group Projects: Insights from Experienced Faculty Members provides sound advice for educators starting out with group projects in their online course:

“Our recommendation is that faculty members ask themselves the following questions before undertaking group projects:

  • What is the desired learning objective?
  • Will the groups be assigned or will students choose their group members?
  • How will students get to know each other and develop trust?
  • Will students receive direct experiences/assignments to help them learn group processes, or will they discover those during their projects?
  • How will students be graded?”

The Five Vital Skills for Online Course Instructors

Model_online_courses
Online Learning by giulia.forsythe (cc)

1. Create a Social and Active Learning Community
Effective teamwork in any setting requires a level of trust among team members, which highlights the need for online leaners to get to know one another, to build familiarity. In a virtual learning space, creating activities and a sense of community where students can establish social presence and feel ‘safe’ to be themselves, and be real is up to the course instructor to create, model and encourage (Rourke, L., Anderson, T. Garrison, D. R., & Archer, W., 2001).

“It is always important to remember that in the online environment, we present ourselves in text. Because it is a flat medium, we need to make an extra effort to humanize the environment. In the face-to-face classroom, students have the opportunity to get to know one another as people–before or after class, during classroom discussions, and in other campus locations such as the student lounge. In the online environment, we need to create these opportunities more purposefully” (Palloff & Pratt, 2001, p. 32).

I usually encourage course instructors to create a short welcome video (or audio) clip, no longer than two or three minutes to post at the beginning of the online course that welcomes the students to the class, tells the students about him or herself, both professionally and personally. I find this format sets a positive tone—makes the instructor appear approachable. Dr. Curtis Bonk, professor and champion of online learning says this, “Social actions might include instructor empathy, interpersonal outreach (welcoming statements, invitations, and apologies), discussion of one’s own online experiences and humor” (Bonk et al., 2001, p. 80).

2. Demonstrate Leadership: The online instructor is more than a subject matter expert he or she is a learning leader, a champion of students’ learning. In the online learning space demonstrating leadership takes a variety of forms including:

1. Being a role model for communicating effectively (see examples outlined in resources by Larry Ragan)
2. Showing presence by posting messages on the course site about the class’s progress and participation
3. Giving feedback on participation [or non-participation] to individual students using email, online chat or online calling using Skype
4. Clearly outlining expectations for group collaboration, following-up with students that are not meeting expectations and discussing with group members
5. Posting strategies for effective team work, outlining how groups work effectively in online spaces, and encourage groups to assign a group leader

“Instructor involvement and engagement in online learning is crucial. Online learning requires instructors to take on active roles in facilitating students’ learning. As well as peer support, instructor presence in supporting and guiding students’ learning and engagement are important for enabling active learning” (Vonderwell & Turner, 2005, p.82)

3. [Over] Communicate: I once worked for a boss who gave me the best leadership advice I ever received —”if you think you are over-communicating, you are communicating just about enough“.  I learned early on that consistent, and plentiful communication is central to helping people be successful. In an online environment, communication takes on new meaning given the barriers of text communication as mentioned in the above quote.

It’s helpful to learn to use other modes of communication—for instance how to use audio to give feedback to students, or record a video or audio clip that outlines instructions about an assignment, or how to use synchronous communication tools such as Skype, Google Hangouts or online chat.  The hardest part to using modalities other than text is the initial learning curve associated with a new technology, but the rewards are great. Often it saves time in the long run, and students appreciate the personal touch.

4. Deal with Conflict: When a conflict surfaces, welcome it and view it as a sign that a group is developing(Palloff & Pratt, 2001).  No one likes conflict, most of us avoid it at all costs. But conflict is part of team work, no one is learning if everyone is agreeing, or ‘giving in’ to get the project over with. It’s helpful to share with students resources on how teams work, and emphasize that conflict and disagreement is a by-product of teamwork— it’s not a sign of dysfunction, but a sign of learning and growth.  Below is a summary of excellent strategies shared by online instructors:

  • Outline in the instructions on the course site, steps to resolve team conflict, ie. 1) address the problem early on… 2) contact and discuss with the team leader …. 3) contact the course instructor…
  • Include a regular mechanism for peer evaluation for group projects so students can communicate to you about the group’s functioning (refer to example 2 in ‘Deal with Conflicts Promptly’)
  • If needed, schedule a group meeting where you act as moderator to help the team get back on track. Use Skype or Google hangouts
  • Research suggests that allowing online groups to create their own teams is an effective method for reducing potential for conflict (Borg, 2011), though a cautionary note: this method requires building time into the course schedule to allow for the group formation, ideally a full course week, and usually works best when at least some of the students have been together in previous courses
  • For serious student problems that go beyond these efforts, contact your institution for support

5.  Monitor Student Progress and Provide FeedbackThe course instructor facilitates the process behind the scenes by: reviewing the individual group discussion forums to see who is participating, who is not and following up as needed, posting a feedback message to students on group assignment progress (see screen shot below) and responding to student concerns and questions promptly

Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 12.09.57 PM
Example of an email to students of an online course that demonstrates instructor feedback provided collectively on a class assignment [‘Providing Support and Feedback’ Larry Ragan]
Include small benchmarks of assignment due dates that lead up to the final assignment submission, for example the outline for the final project might be due date #1, draft of final assignment, due date #2, etc. This strategy builds in opportunities for instructor to provide feedback and support during the group process of the collaboration, sharing and knowledge building.

Further Reading

References