Ah, the joys of group work! It works really well for some, but for others it is a struggle. I suppose that fact will remain whether the groups are onsite or online. Interestingly, those very same students who don’t like working in groups onsite might really thrive when working in groups online. Having had a child with Asperger’s, I can attest to how much more comfortable online group work is for students with Asperger’s than onsite group work. In other words, there will always be some students in their element, and there will be others who feel challenged by group work; either way, they have to do it. For that reason, I appreciated Janette’s point that it is important to promote student “buy-in” before starting group work in any class. I always let students know that in the work world, as in so much in life, we need to work in groups. Most work is done in collaboration, so even if you prefer working on your own (as I did when I was younger), you still have to learn to navigate working in collaboration with others. My hope is that students will ultimately find that it is truly rewarding to work in groups.
Group work is a part of my daily routine in the onsite classroom. While I have not yet taught online, my experiences with being an online student have been that there is significantly less group work, although discussion boards are always central to learning. So, how to make group work meaningful and effective in the online classroom? My guess is that it’s challenging, but challenges can be fun! No doubt a certain amount of trouble-shooting will be needed, but group work is so essential to learning that it is well worth the time and effort invested.
One group project I consistently assign is a group research project/presentation. For example, this semester my class is reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, which is about criminal justice. I ask the students to work in groups to research some specific aspect of criminal justice, such as the use of solitary confinement or sentencing juveniles as adults, then create a group presentation for the rest of the class. Students typically make either a power point or a poster for their presentations.
I can see that there are a number of possible “pitfalls” to avoid when translating this assignment to the online environment. As Janette points out, for instance, there is a greater likelihood of personality issues impacting group dynamics since there is an absence of “non-verbal cues.” For this reason, I think it’s essential that the teacher keep close tabs on group communications so that problems brewing can be dealt with before they become serious. I also think Warnock’s advice to have students create clear roles with distinct “job descriptions” is a good way to facilitate positive group dynamics. When expectations and roles are very clearly defined, there are fewer opportunities for personalities to come into conflict. Warnock also suggests having a clear group leader who is asked to give the teacher regular progress updates. This seems like a very good idea, as the teacher can then intervene if, for example, certain students are not participating as needed.
Pitfalls aside, though, I think there are some very cool possibilities with translating this kind of assignment to the online environment. I would need to familiarize myself with the various technologies a little bit so that I could facilitate groups taking advantage of the tools available. Ultimately, though, I can imagine students coming up with some pretty amazing multi-media projects for presenting their topics. They could include video, audio, text, and other visuals. There are loads of online presentation tools, such as “Emaze,” which could work well. I would just need to research which ones are free and easy to use, while also being creative and engaging.
Ultimately, I think the main point is to make sure that we don’t allow the potential pitfalls of online group work to scare us off from it altogether. Challenges are inevitable, but the potential benefits are numerous.