Online group work provides several advantages to students.  Two major advantages include:

  1. Increased socialization and connectivity with classmates.  Some activities that could help groups become more connected include posting pictures, sharing details about themselves (e.g., work experiences, hobbies), and starting a discussion board to discuss non-classroom topics (e.g., current events, items of interest).
  2. An opportunity to develop and practice group and team skills, including problem-solving, project management, and asynchronous and synchronous communication.

When should we use group work?

In  the Faculty Focus article “How to Design Effective Online Group Work Activities,” Mary Bart writes that we should “design tasks that are truly collaborative, meaning the students will benefit more from doing the activity as a group than doing it alone.”  Her article goes on to quote Jean Mandernach:

“Too often we give students an activity and call it group work when in reality it’s something they could do on their own. Then we get frustrated when they don’t work together and just do the work on their own.”

The article recommends group work for assignments for which:

  • “There’s no right answer, such as debates, or research on controversial issues.”
  • “There are multiple perspectives, such as analyzing current events, cultural comparisons, or case studies.”
  • “There are too many resources for one person to evaluate, so a jigsaw puzzle approach is needed with each student responsible for one part.”

Be sure to check out the “Online Group Work Instructor Checklist” at the end of the article. 

How do I assess individual contributions?

Use technology. Promote the use of tools that capture individual contributions through versioning. Examples of tools provided by UIS:

Google Docs, an online word processor, allows students to collaborate on documents and tracks who has made changes and additions. Students can log in to this service with their UIS NetIDs, so there is no need to create additional accounts. Learn more about Google Apps at UIS

You can also create Google Docs Collaborations in Canvas to simply access to the learning materials for your students.

Though Canvas Pages may be set up to be edited by students, they do not allow simultaneous editing. That makes them a poor choice for collaborative group work.

Implement peer evaluation. Allow group members to evaluate one another and themselves and incorporate this evaluation into the final grades for the group project.

Resources for students

The following resources may be worth sharing with your students as they prepare to work as a member of an online group.

Group Norms: A Tool for Reducing Conflict in Student Groups

Each member of an online group will have his or her own expectations of how the project should be completed and how it develops.  Students might find it worthwhile for their group to establish a set of norms, or common expectations, early in the group work so that each group member has a similar understanding of issues.  Some considerations include:

  • How will the group function?  Will someone serve as the group leader or will everyone be responsible for keeping the group moving forward?
  • When will the group meet?  Will the group meet asynchronously, synchronously, or a combination?
  • What technology will the group use to support the decision-making process of the group (e.g., E-mail, Canvas Group Tools, Zoom, Telephone Conference Calls)?
  • What technology will the group use to support the resource-sharing process of the group (e.g., using a collaboration tool like GoogleDocs, e-mailing resources as attachments, posting resources as attachments to the Canvas Group space, posting resources to a wiki)?
  • What technology will the group use to support the creation of the group paper (e.g., e-mailing versions of the paper as attachments, posting versions of the paper as attachments to the Canvas Group space, hosting the paper online using GoogleDocs)?
  • When will tasks be completed? Will the group stagger the completion of the various tasks or will it all be completed at once?
  • Who will complete various tasks?  Will individuals be assigned to different tasks or will the group work collectively on all tasks?

Instructors can encourage groups to develop these norms early in the group project by making it a required activity after the groups are formed.

Collaborative tools could be used for the members to collectively develop the norms.

Reducing Social Loafing in Group Work

One common problem groups experience among team members is the  “free-rider” or social-loafing team member.  Wikibooks identifies several causes of social loafing.  Some things faculty can do to reduce social loafing from occurring within a group include:

  • Create appropriate group sizes for the project.
  • Make individual contributions meaningful; create task interdependence among group members.
  • Promote the use of tools that capture individual contributions to make each student’s contributions more visible (e.g., Google Docs)
  • Encourage groups to have a progress-checker, hold members accountable for contributions, and remind them of deadlines and expectations. 

Unfortunately, group conflicts sometimes aren’t revealed to the instructor until the end of the project. Encouraging or requiring progress reports or feedback from students at specific intervals may help you to identify trouble spots.

For semester-long projects, a mid-semester feedback form is useful. In “Online Groups and Social Loafing: Understanding Student-Group Interactions,” Piezon and Donaldson suggest including multiple evaluation points so that “group members are aware that their contributions are salient and being observed by others. Members who are performing poorly are given several opportunities to increase their performance.”

Another strategy is to prevent conflicts by keeping the groups on track and on task by requiring small deliverables for the project throughout the semester.