When it comes to online learning, Michelle Covert has one message for instructors: Stop assigning so much group work.
Covert, who completed an online master’s in higher education administration at Drexel University, recalls one frustrating experience in which she was paired with
an unresponsive classmate who turned in poor work, if it was even turned it in
“It’s different when you can look someone in the eye and see them face-to-face,” she says. “There’s more accountability. Online it’s easier to shirk your responsibilities. It’s easier not to be accountable to someone you never have to see.”
While completing a group project in a virtual environment can help students learn to work with others, it can also present unique challenges. Aside from the normal stresses of group work, students need to work with peers in different time zones, coordinate with people using different technology and communicate in ways that make it difficult to understand someone’s personality or tone.
On top of that, few instructors prepare their students to face these obstacles, according to Michael Williams, dean of the School of Business and Management at Thomas Edison State College.
"If you compare it to the brick-and-mortar classroom, you immediately have sensory deprivation. You can't sit down with a bunch of people in a classroom and chat. It's not organic," says Williams, an online professor who focuses his research on adult and distance learning. "There is an assumption that students are ready and prepared to engage in online instruction, and more specifically, that they have the knowledge, competencies and skills to engage in group work."
When one group member stops responding or workloads become uneven, the dynamic can go downhill – rapidly. Grades can also suffer if the situation is not addressed appropriately.
Experts suggest students try the following tips to make a group project successful.
1. Create a plan: As soon as a group gets established, students should come up with a clear plan outlining deadlines and assigning responsibilities, says Jeff Borden, an online instructor and vice president of instruction and academic strategy at Pearson, an education services company.
Ideally, he says, students should use a project management tool such as Trello, a free system that can be accessed by students and the instructor. But even something as simple as an Excel spreadsheet will help students stay focused, he says.
“This way things become fact-based,” he says. “It’s black and white and clear-cut. Everyone knows who is and who isn't participating.”
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2. Communicate in a way that can be monitored: Covert, who is now pursuing her doctorate in adult education at Pennsylvania State University, said she quickly learned to communicate with her classmates in forums that could be accessed by her instructor.
“We would communicate through Google docs and the learning management system so that you can see when everybody was working,” she says. “It’s a great way to prove what was happening and it forces you to do your work. If someone doesn't want to work, then you can take it to the instructor.”
If students have tried to prompt a group member to respond to emails and other messages and it doesn't seem to be working, Borden says including the instructor on emails can also be a good way to jolt a peer into action.
“When students begin communicating with and copying the instructor, communication suddenly takes on a whole new level of authority,” he says.
3. Contact your instructor and explain the problem: If students have already confronted a peer and that person's behavior isn't changing, it might be time to reach out to an instructor and explain the problem, says Williams of Thomas Edison State College.
And in an online environment, where courses are often condensed, it’s best to move sooner rather than later, he says.
“When students find themselves in a course in a group and either the group is not functioning well or somebody else is not performing well, this is when they need to be vocal and privately go to the instructor – you only have eight to 12 weeks in the course, so as soon as you notice this you need to be proactive. If you wait until week eight, then everyone is pointing fingers and it’s over.”
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