Group Work in a Digital Class
Group Work in a Digital Class avatar

                As an instructor who builds his class around group work, I am excited for the possibilities that the digital classroom opens. In my F2F class, I always have an activity that allows the students to put the idea we just discussed into action. We always follow these activities up with a discussion about how the idea came through in the activity. While this structure has worked well, I have always thought these group activities would benefit from a slower and longer application of the idea.

 I think the main benefit in transferring these group activities online is time.  For instance, in my class today, I had students work in groups to write a brief speech on any topic they wanted (I urged a light-hearted topic given the sad events of last night). The rules for this assignment were simple: write a professional speech you could deliver to fellow students and sneak in a few logical fallacies. While the groups had an amazing time trying to mask fallacies with professional language and logical support, the discussion and sharing portion of the assignment had to be trimmed due to time constraints. If this activity was translated for an OWC, groups could collaborate on a google doc and in chat; this collaboration technique would also afford agency to those students who often get steamrolled in group conversations. Not only could students spend more time incorporating logical support, but other groups could visit and see how their peers are approaching the activity. The discussion/decompression aspect of the assignment could also be developed and allow more time for students to reflect prior to responding. I imagine all the wonderful conversation that could arise in the class discussion of these speeches, but I also wonder if that hilarity I witnessed in the classroom today would still be there.  With a creative activity like this, it is those rapid-fire conversations students have that make the activity so effective.  If I desynchronize an activity that is supposed to be fun—by my definition of fun—will those funny moments where students wittily respond to and build upon each other disappear? It is difficult for me to know for sure until I actually implement this activity online, but I guess I could always require a synchronous meeting or Zoom for the brainstorming portion.

I am also intrigued with how peer review will translate into the OWC.  I enjoy having a Q&A before each workshop, and I really enjoy hearing students have an honest “state of affairs” about their work. I know these conversations could be pushed into the digital space, but the synchronous nature of the F2F workshop is so appealing. I love hearing students give meaningful feedback; it feels like validation (they remembered my lecture!), so maybe this concern is more selfish. However, the one thing that I think will improve in this switch is the participation rate. I have noticed that my attendance seems to dip when it comes to workshops in my course. I imagine this is because students procrastinate and bail on class to avoid the guilt (even though I recommend they come regardless), but in the asynchronous online workshop, students could give feedback over the course a few days. This wider window could help those procrastinators catch up, and could facilitate a much higher participation rate. With how ubiquitous technology has become, and with so much of our daily communication happening in a digital space, it will be interesting to see how successful these conversations turn out to be.

Wait…What Are We Supposed To Do?
Wait…What Are We Supposed To Do? avatar

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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.

Food for Collaboration
Food for Collaboration avatar

Full Disclosure – I started working on this post and generating ideas for a collaborative assignment before reading Chapter 14. There were two simple reasons behind this approach: I had a few ideas that I didn’t want to lose, so I started writing before they had a chance to escape. The second reason is about influence: I wanted to get me on the page first and then see if Warnock and I shared some of the same ideas. This resulted in a section that encourages students to consider collaboration approaches and a system that works for the group, which speaks to Warnock’s point about student roles (149). I found this section to be particularly helpful and assuring. That being said, while I’m definitely an online newbie, at this point I’m not sure I agree with Warnock’s idea of “identifying a clear leader” (149) in each group that instructors can check in with. It makes sense in terms of instructors being able to check in with designated students, but I don’t like the idea of establishing, at least early on, roles with obvious connotations. I’d prefer to let these roles surface gradually, organically, and ideally remain title-free. However, as you’ll read below, I do emphasize the importance of developing a system and setting “reasonable goals and deadlines early on that can be adjusted based on the needs of the project and group.”

Finally, perhaps this was just me, but I was really hoping Warnock would share actual content—i.e., the instructions and guidelines he gives his students for the argument website project he mentions (148). I wanted to see what the students were seeing to get a better sense of how he actually delivers ideas. To what extent is his language bound/closed vs. unbound/open? Where and when, if at all, does he offer clear “must/should” requirements? How does he go about inviting his students to explore exactly? For this reason in particular, I’m including actual steps/content that I’m planning to share with my own students later this semester. But it’s just a draft. I look forward to hearing any thoughts on how I’m delivering the assignment to students. Is there too much at times? Too little? Am I too prescriptive? Room for clarification? Where are the holes or gaps? Potential issues down the road? Is the reflection letter too short? Too long? Is the project too complicated and ambitious? Grading thoughts? Do I need additional layers? How might you rethink parts? Should I scrap the whole thing?

Context – In a few weeks, my students will wrap up Unit 2 and begin Unit 3. This third unit will focus on food production and ultimately result in essays based on John Robbins’s No Happy Cows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Food Revolution. After reading the book and getting a sense of the various topics—pork, chicken, beef, soy, chocolate, coffee and more—students will consider what’s not in the book and eventually argue how a new chapter on a specific topic would strengthen it. In other words, they get to join the conversation. What’s particularly challenging for students is making clear, meaningful connections. They have to know the book well in order to argue why a new chapter idea is a good fit; they have to be able to articulate, for instance, how a new chapter would build upon or set up existing chapters and ideas. It’s kind of like a book review. Kind of.

In addition to reading the book and thinking about new chapter ideas, students will also take part in a collaborative group project related to the topic of food. Essentially, they’ll be creating brochures that spotlight human rights issues tied to food. This emphasis compliments the third section of the book, “Industrial Food Production—and Other Dirty Dealings,” which examines human rights issues in the chocolate and coffee industries.

Below are some of the instructions I’m planning to share with students. I’m still developing content, and I’m even thinking about delivering the content through a Canva brochure like the kind they’ll be creating:

The Group Project

The Challenge – This assignment includes two parts, the brochure and the reflection letter.

The Brochure & Audience – Together with your group, you’ll create a stunning brochure designed specifically for English 100 students. This will be your specific audience. Building on some of the ideas from Unit 3 and No Happy Cows, your brochure will spotlight a specific human rights issue tied to food production and include the following elements:

  • Visuals – Since it’s going to be a stunning brochure, you’re probably going to need at least two relevant visuals.
  • Words – You’ll contextualize your visuals by addressing current status, causes, impacts, previously attempted/proposed solutions, and your group’s new proposed solution. What’s taking place today? How might you introduce and show the issue? What are some of the causes behind this issue? How did we get here? How does the issue impact people (physically, mentally, etc.), specific communities, industries, the environment and more? What has been done to address the issue? What new solution has your group created?
  • Works Cited – Of course you have to use one of your panels to cite your sources, which include your visuals.

Ultimately, to create a memorable brochure, you’ll need to utilize the tools you acquired from our second unit on communication and rhetoric. In other words, you’ll need to demonstrate your ability to use visual and textual rhetoric based on a specific audience. It’s not just about generating awesome content. It’s also about how you deliver this awesome content.

The Reflection Letter – After you complete your brochure with your group, you’ll develop your own reflection letter (500 words minimum), based on your unique experience, for future English 100 students. Essentially, you’ll reflect on the collaboration experience—your system, the process of creating the brochure, how you thought about the audience, your role in the group, what worked, what didn’t, what you would do differently and more. In addition to explaining the experience, you’ll also need to provide specific (showing vs. telling) advice to future English 100 students about how they should approach the assignment. You’ll submit your reflections through Turnitin, which is to say, I’m the only one who will be reading these reflections.

The System & Getting Started – Figuring out the best way to collaborate will be essential to your success.  What works for one group, might not work for another, so try to develop a system that works for your group. Some of you might begin with a Google Doc (set to “edit”) to brainstorm ideas. Others might start by adding initial thoughts to the DBQ 10 post. There are also options like email, FaceTime, Google Duo, and video conferencing sites like Zoom. Finally, if you’re in the same area, some of you might even find that meeting in person at a coffee shop or MCC is the most efficient way to get started. Overall, it’s probably a good idea to get a sense of schedules and see when folks have time to work on the project. Even if you can’t meet in person or chat via video call, you’ll probably be more productive if you set reasonable goals and deadlines early on that can be adjusted based on the needs of the project and group. Without a sense of schedules and some kind of system, you could easily grow frustrated waiting around for a response or for someone to submit a portion of the project. Seriously: Get organized early to avoid headaches later.

The Issue – After you chat with your classmates and establish a system that works for your group, you should start researching various human rights issues tied to food production. Where should you start? Excellent question! Personally, I think Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are great places to locate current issues and legit articles, but there are plenty of others just a few clicks away. Don’t forget our wonderful library and librarians—they’re excellent resources—and don’t forget about moving beyond Google. There’s Google Scholar, for instance, as well as MiraCosta’s Databases. Once you’ve had a chance to share your research with your group, you’ll need to select a human rights issue to feature in your brochure.

The Template – Head over to Canva, which you already used for DBQ 8, and check out the “Brochure” templates. You and your group will need to decide on a template. Don’t forget your audience.

The Grading – Half of your grade will be based on your group’s brochure and half will be based on your reflection letter to future English 100 students.

The Groups – Open DBQ 10 to discover the magic that is your unique group.

Unit 2: Collaboration and Group Work Online
Unit 2: Collaboration and Group Work Online avatar

Last week, we finished a group assignment in my f2f classes that I think might migrate nicely to the online classroom.

The assignment asks students to think critically about web sources and has two parts: a larger group component and a partner presentation.

The first task is completed in even numbered groups of 4 or 6 students. Students first must define “information counterfeits” such as propaganda, misinformation, disinformation, fake news, and alternative facts. Students then are to find an example (either a general example or a specific item from a web site) of each. 

The first term they must define is information, which is sneakingly challenging. Last week a group identified statements such as “My flip-flops are black” and “Your hair is blond’ as information, and their discussion about how they might verify these statements led to more and more questions about how we verify facts—how do we agree on primary sources and where do we have consensus of basic facts?  In f2f classes, this activity generates much engagement and laughter and (hopefully) critical discussion.

The final part of this first component asks students to define the terms gullible, skeptical, and cynical. They then write a brief paragraph answering the following question: Using these terms, describe how careful consumers of information should approach what they see, hear, and read.

This activity culminates in a large group discussion in which I ask questions about how students normally seek out information. Where do you usually go? (A: Google, Yahoo, social media sites.) How do you know you can trust the information—that is, how do you know the information you’re consuming is not propaganda or disinformation? (A: never really thought too much about it, unless it’s obviously a spoof.)

This discussion leads nicely into an introduction of the partner presentation part of the assignment. The goal of this component is to simulate “real life” research. Students partner off and choose a topic to research. Topics are important: I let them choose anything . . . as long as it is one with competing viewpoints. The assignment asks students to find one trustworthy source and one untrustworthy source. A secondary objective if to find “gray area” web sources—ones that are not obviously trustworthy (like academic papers) or obviously untrustworthy (like a page with dancing gifs).

The presentation portion of the assignment is low key: the pair tells us what topic they are researching and then silently previews each of their sources—in no particular order—by slowing scrolling through the page. The class has to vote on which is the trustworthy source and which is the untrustworthy. After we’ve voted, the pair explains which is which, outlining at least five reasons why they found the source trustworthy or not. There are a few “rules”: no .edu, .gov, no sources found via the databases, and no Wikipedia sources.

In f2f classes, the first part of the assignment is completed using Google Docs and the second via the Discussions in Canvas.


I can imagine migrating this activity into an online classroom. I think it already features some of the key points from Janette’s video.

1) Student “buy-in
I think it has “buy-in.” The subtext of the activity (i.e. not being duped by stuff on the internet) offers buy-in, and students love the idea of researching anything they want and of finding tricky web sites.
2) Clear expectations
I’ve finessed this assignment for a few semesters, modifying it make sure it more accurately reflects “real life” scenarios, making the expectations realistic (I originally had students find three sources for each—too much!) and specific. I’m sure I can be more clear, though. If there is only one thing I’ve learned from teaching, I can never be clear enough!!

In the online classroom, I would want to try the presentations as a synchronous meeting. I first thought it would fine asynchronouslywith students recording and uploading their presentations for us to view (with a pause for voting)–but I’m leaning against this idea because is seems like mere delivery of information. I want the discussion that happens during the presentations, which I think might be more valuable than the actual presentations. I would love feedback from experienced online teachers, though. It seems like online students might resist synchronous meetings.
3) Baby steps
I think this assignment is a good example of the baby steps that Janette discusses. Just one tiny part of an essay—quality sources- ha!