Planning and Implementing Online Group Projects

I’m staring down the last semester of my master’s degree; I should be thrilled, right? If only I weren’t trying to recover from an online group project gone awry, maybe…

Typically, I am enthusiastic at the mention of group projects in a syllabus. I enjoy learning about the experiences and the opinions of my peers and collaborating on shared goals. I’ve always had positive experiences with the cooperative learning process in a group, even when collaborating online, and success in the products created with my teams. From what I hear, at some point the odds were bound to catch up with me.

I get the point of working and learning in groups, and I certainly should, given that my philosophy on education bends toward that of social constructivism. One might even say that I am an advocate for such cooperative and collaborative endeavors, since my background in business administration affirms that the communication (and technology) skills developed and honed while working in groups and negotiating myriad interests help to produce the capable team players much in demand in today’s workplace.

So, if group projects are indeed valuable, then what points such a learning endeavor toward success? It seems to me that the responsibility for group learning experiences rests with both learners and instructors. From the perspective of the learner, I have already written two posts for the World Campus blog, Corner of College and Allen – Part 1: Get Off to a Great Start & Part 2: Working Well Together and Working Together Well. From the perspective of the educator, aspects like appropriate design, implementation, and execution are crucial for the success of the collaborative learning experience involving online learners and that’s what I’d like to discuss here.

Planning the Approach

Since best practices in instructional design ask whether an assignment is the right fit for achieving specific instructional goals, it is probably a good idea to first ask if this format and approach are appropriate for guiding the learners through the objectives.

If the answer is yes, then in my experience, assignments that use a consensus-building or problem-solving approach tend to promote a more collaborative learning process over those that involve straight research. Straight research can often be broken down into sections where learners work independently and that only requires group members to cooperate in order to achieve shared goals. On the other hand, the ongoing discussion and debate involved in building consensus or solving a problem are much more interactive.

Even after several years, my favorite online group project involved a series of assignments over a semester in which our team discussed, analyzed, and compared a set of research articles. This progression of exercises provided the opportunity for team members to alternate leadership roles and the shared exchange of responsibility allowed us to select heavier or lighter workloads when our schedules were most amenable, thereby making the assignments more manageable. By the conclusion of the project, each group member had volunteered at least once to lead a team assignment.

Building Teams

Another important consideration for creating manageable group projects is assigning team sizes small enough to maintain cohesion, but large enough to handle the workload. If projects require more than five group members, then it might be time to consider reducing the overall complexity. Group contracts can reduce the potential for conflict among team members by defining roles and responsibilities and establishing a project schedule.

Begin group projects with an exercise for building community so that team members have an opportunity to get to know each other. This will also help the team identify and take advantage of the skills, interests, and expertise that each group member brings to the project. For instance, if one member is more experienced with the required writing style, then that individual is probably best suited to review formatting, citations and references for accuracy.

Designing the Assignment(s)

To avoid confusion and delay, instructions and expectations should be clear, concise, and consistent. In the group project that I am still recovering from, navigating the ambiguity in and the scope of the assignment required a considerable amount of our team’s time and energy. The questions posed by the instructor – all of which we were required to address in our paper – not only included many redundancies, but actually exceeded the maximum page allowance without additional information!

Though we had a model to use an example – an annual report negotiated and synthesized by industry experts – creating a similar product as novices with a wide variety of exposure levels was a daunting task.  When designing the assignments to support a sequence of learning objectives – the route learners will navigate – please consider the range where learners are starting and set realistic expectations for where they should all end up and how they will get there together.

Considering the Group Learning Process

Allow teams to review the available topics or project materials and begin the process of selecting content and negotiating their collective approach. Project proposals are one way to get teams to organize their initial thoughts and begin planning. Plus, they provide an opportunity for instructor feedback on the proposed direction and scope of each project.

It is a good idea to build in checkpoints throughout the process where instructor feedback can serve as a guide and help to keep teams moving in the right direction. Create team spaces to facilitate interaction and to act as a repository for ongoing dialog. These areas will serve as both a home base for each team and as a window for the instructor to monitor team health and progress.

Group projects involve considerable time for both the learners and the instructor. In my experience, instructors will need to maintain a quiet presence and keep an eye out for teams that hit major roadblocks, whether with the assignment or each other. Even team contracts do not completely eliminate the need for the instructor to serve as the final authority on dispute resolution.

Particularly if an assignment is newly developed, try to be flexible and keep an eye on team progress in order to adapt the project to the learning process as it unfolds.

Assessing Process and Product

Create a rubric for students to gauge whether or not their final product will meet expectations. Decreasing the potential for surprises results in more confident learners! Along with the quality of the final product, assessment should also consider individual effort and team member perspectives on the process. How to accomplish the task of grading the process may vary based on how learners will be communicating and how much insight the instructor will have as the project evolves.

No matter what, every team member should have a voice on each individual’s effort and the resulting grade. This is the only real solution that I have found to balance the fairness scale. If peer reviews are required and honest feedback is desired, please consider them confidential! Learners are likely to meet in another course and it serves no purpose to potentially impact future learning in a negative way.

Reflecting and Revising

Build in an opportunity for peers to review the submissions from other teams. Not only will students learn from the different perspectives presented, but they can also gain insight when comparing their own final product with the work of their peers. If possible, bring the learning full circle by giving teams an opportunity to improve their project based on feedback from the instructor and their peers.

Don’t forget to ask learners for feedback and to reflect on the overall learning process of the group project. Consider making revisions to the design based on learner input and final outcomes. This is an opportunity to implement suggestions for improvement and refine the design for the next session.

In collaborative learning, the process is as important as the product. I’m sure this is far from a comprehensive list of advice for undertaking online group projects. What have you tried? What worked well; what crashed and burned?

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