If you’ve ever found yourself working on a group project in an online class, you’ve probably asked this question. When I recently encouraged my online students to advise each other on their group work, of the five “design teams” one chose to meet in person and recommended this to the other groups. Since they all lived in the same area, this was a possibility for them, and these students seemed all the more connected for having done so.
But it’s not always possible to meet in person, it’s usually not required, and you may not even be interested in doing this. After all, you’ve likely chosen online learning so that you can access and complete your course assignments around other commitments, such as work and family. In my first online course as a student, I remember one team member who was really interested in face-to-face meetings. Others in the group, including myself, resisted, citing time conflicts and a desire to complete everything online.
My group never did manage an in person meeting, but we could have, potentially improving our experience and the quality of our final project. It is another thing to add to your to-do list a student, however, a face-to-face session may be an investment with a valuable return.
If meeting in person is a possibility for you and your group, some planning is in order before you get together, to ensure that you make the most of this time and effort:
- Goal-setting: What does your group hope to accomplish during a meeting? The University of Guelph recommends a list of “getting started” questions to “help you clarify the objectives and expectations” of a group project, which can be used to prepare a meeting agenda. Where is further discussion required and what decisions need to be made? Use this time wisely and efficiently to tackle the activities that will be most difficult to accomplish online.
- Social time: Add this to your agenda, especially if you’re all meeting for the first time, so that there’s an opportunity to informally network and introduce yourselves. This is when you’ll get to know your teammates’ senses of humor, common concerns about work, skills and task preferences, etc., which may not surface as easily via online communication.
- Study space: Choose a location that is convenient and conducive to achieving your group’s goals. If your online program is affiliated with a campus or learning center, contact them to find out if meeting space is available.
- Safety first: You may know your classmates from interactions in your online courses, but it’s still a good idea to meet for the first time in a public place. Coffee shops and libraries are popular study spots where you regularly see groups gathered around textbooks and laptops.
Keep in mind that an in-person meeting should enhance your team’s ability to communicate and collaborate, and may even strengthen a feeling of community within your small group. If “in-person” isn’t required, isn’t a good fit for the team, or not possible due to location and scheduling differences, there are other options available to help you achieve your goals.
The Next Best Thing
Taking the opportunity to meet in real-time has its benefits, even if it doesn’t take place face-to-face. Synchronous communication can allow for a similar experience, without travel or other logistical issues. Here are a few things to consider when planning an online meeting:
- Free web-based tools: Skype, Google Hangouts, and Vyew are just a few of the applications available to host an online session. Most are easy to manage, require account registration, and have limits on the number of people that can attend, but should be able to accommodate your small student group. Once you choose your meeting space, ask everyone to log in and try it out before you meet as a group.
- School-based resources: Check with both your instructor and online librarian to find out what support they may be able to offer your group, including access to group space in your course site and synchronous meeting software that may be licensed by the institution. Your school may also offer guidance on working in groups, or provide tips and tutorials for using synchronous software.
- Audio and video capabilities: Look for options that include video for all participants. We tend to shy away from speaking into a microphone or being on camera, but these are helpful ways to get to know each other and connect as real people, not just as usernames on a class roster.
- Interactive features: Whiteboards, chat or instant messaging, polling, and screen sharing are options you may find in a web conferencing space. Review your group goals and plan for the types of tools you’ll need during the meeting.
- Note-taking: It’s always a good idea to capture the conversation that takes place during a live meeting, in person or online. Many applications allow you to create a recording of your session, which can be helpful to review at a later date. You may also want to add a shared document using your meeting tool or something like Google Drive, which allows for multiple editors during your meeting, as well as file storage after your meeting.
Check with your instructor to clarify the requirements of your group assignment and answer any questions you and your team may have about what is expected.
Student groups can successfully complete their assignments without having to meet in person or online, but these options may be useful strategies for improving communication, working relationships, and productivity, even if you only meet once.
What is your favorite way to work with classmates at a distance? Share your recommendations with us here!
Image credit: Brunel University, Flickr, CC:BY-NC-ND