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Get Ready for Online Group Assignments


All students should expect to interact with their classmates and work together on collaborative assignments in their online courses.

This was my response when a staff member, working in an ombudsman role to advocate for students, called me with student complaints. At the time, I was working as an instructional designer and responsible for updating and maintaining a set of online courses. The advocate added something similar to the following: “but these students enrolled in these classes so they wouldn’t have to work in groups.”

It’s a common myth that online courses don’t have group projects. While this may be the case in some classes, when you enter a new online program you should do so with the expectation that you will work with your classmates. You may even find the level of interaction required in an online course to be more intense than what you remember of traditional classrooms.

“Why do we have to do this?”

Many students ask this question and there are multiple reasons why group work is appropriate in an online course. Faculty Focus’s How to Design Effective Online Group Work Activities, presents the recommendations of Grand Canyon University’s Jean Mandernach. Group assignments are best used in three primary situations:

1) “There’s no right answer, such as debates, or research on controversial issues.”

2) “There are multiple perspectives, such as analyzing current events, cultural comparisons, or case studies.”

3) “There are too many resources for one person to evaluate, so a jigsaw puzzle approach is needed with each student responsible for one part.”

When you encounter a group assignment in your next course, carefully review the requirements and look for details about the goal of the experience and how it is designed to help you and your team members reach the learning objectives of the course.

Benefits of Group Work

Educator Debbie Morrison includes “collaboration IS the future” in her list of reasons why we need group work in online learning. It not only meets the needs of the modern workforce, but also fosters creativity and social connections. Some of the potential benefits of online collaboration are:

  • Job preparation: Working in teams is a reality of many employment settings. Group work in class gives you more experience in working as part of a team to achieve results in a limited time frame. Consider how your group projects might become part of a career portfolio or provide you with examples to share with potential employers in a job interview.

  • Skill development: Online group assignments allow you to practice communication and management tasks, building professional skills as you interact with your online peers on a wide rage of projects.

  • Digital literacy: You will also develop new competencies that allow you to be creative and constructive in your courses as you learn how to use new technologies to connect with others.

Make the Most of It

As you enter courses that require small group projects, avoid the temptation to resist and procrastinate. Embrace the opportunity ahead of you. Here are a few tips to make the process more manageable:

  • Create a charter. My online course requires each team to agree on and sign a group charter, but you don’t need your instructor to prompt this kind of coordination. Before beginning work on the assignment, take just a little time to sort out contact information, determine schedule availability, and identify the strengths of each member, as well as set ground rules and establish a proactive plan for conflict management.
  • Use your group space. Many learning management systems (e.g., Blackboard, Desire2Learn) allow the instructor to create semi-private workspaces for student groups. This may include a wiki, discussion area, live chat, file storage, and more, that only your group members and instructor can access. You can also find a central location to communicate, track tasks, and keep notes, etc. outside of your course site with free tools like Google Drive, Wiggio, and more.
  • Manage your time. Participating in an online course takes time, especially if you are adding it to your work and family commitments. Expect that team projects will take even longer to complete, due to the lag in communication and the challenge of coordinating the efforts of multiple people, all of whom have busy schedules. Plan accordingly and set deadlines for group tasks in advance of their due dates so that there is some flexibility along the way when you need it.
  • Ask questions. If all members aren’t clear on the expectations of the group assignment, review any instructions provided and the syllabus, then talk to your instructor. If not directed to do so, consider electing one member of the group to be the person to contact the instructor with any questions that come up, and to bring answers back to the rest of the team.
  • Do the work. We’ve all experienced team projects on-the-job or in class and there’s often at least one person who doesn’t follow through, while the others take up the slack. As Worcester Polytechnic Institute advises its online students: “Make sure you are not the person whole lets the [other] team members down.” [PDF]
  • Working in teams can be frustrating no matter the environment or mode of communication. But you can take active steps to minimize the stress and contribute to successful project completion.

    What are your suggestions for surviving group projects in an online course?

    Image credit: lumaxart, Flickr, CC:BY-SA

January 18th, 2013 written by Staff Writers

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