Group work is a great way for learners to share their collective knowledge, experience and perspectives.
For undergraduates, group work offers a chance to practice communication, planning and team-working skills vital to the workplace. For postgraduates, there is greater value in sharing their perspectives and sector experiences to refine their collaboration skills.
However, group work can also be a divisive activity between learners and instructors. It requires a great deal of effort on behalf of the learner and there are often great differences between group work approaches within groups which can lead to disagreements.
If you are considering using group work in your online course, first think about how the activity aligns to the learning objectives and the value that the group work will offer to the learners and thier learning experience. Keep in mind that learners will not always see the value in the same way that you might.
Ask yourself whether group work is the best activity to achieve the intended outcomes and consider that effective group work on-campus does not automatically translate to effective group work online.
Here are a few things which should be considered when planning group work activities.
Provide clear instructions
Your learners won’t automatically be good at collaborating online and working with others. This may be a brand new experience for them and providing clear instructions for the task will help them to get started and stay on track as a group.
A key instruction to include is how the group work will be graded and whether the group will have any say in how grades are allocated. Grades can either be awarded based on each individual's contribution to the overall task or to the group as a whole. Keep in mind that the latter option will allow free-loading students an unfair advantage which may upset harder working individuals.
You should also be very clear about submission instructions. For example, in the case of a poster presentation, is there a requirement for all of the group to present or is one member to act as the spokesperson. Providing clear instructions will help the students to feel more comfortable and save on questions further down the line.
Try putting yourself in the shoes of your learners and consider creating and sharing a FAQ sheet based on some of the common questions you think you might receive.
Carefully select the type of activity
There is a wide range of group work options including reports, presentations, portfolios, performances and showcases, to name a few. Review your learning objectives and keep your student’s experience in mind when designing your group activity.
Undergraduates may benefit more from working collaboratively to create, present or collate an assignment. Postgraduates should be challenged with a level appropriate activity, e.g. analysing, synthesising or evaluating Within a group setting.
Planning simpler activities for undergraduates, particularly at level 4 and 5, will allow them to focus on the benefits of working together and the soft skills that can be developed. For level 6 and 7 you could plan more challenging activities, where the task relates to real-world problems or activities that emulate employment activities.
For undergraduates, you may want to consider being more prescriptive about how the group can divide up the work amongst them, whereas with postgraduate, this aspect could be seen as part of the challenge of the activity, challenging their team working skills.
Plan more time
In the current situation, working asynchronously will be the primary method of collaborative work. Working asynchronously take more time than working synchronously. International students may have gone home and so groups may be operating across varying timezones, which may make task progress slower still. Where possible, group learners by timezone.
If you have the option, allow more time to complete the task. If time is tight, consider simplifying the task to focus on the core elements.
It can be challenging for groups to stay on track, especially if there is no designated or natural leader amongst the group. Set out a clear timetable of milestones for groups to check themselves against and regular touchpoints to keep in touch with the groups’ progress.
If you are keeping in touch with the groups regularly, you can identify any common issues and challenges that you can then help resolve early.
You could check-in using dedicated group spaces within your VLE or by using your live session software. Alternatively, for an asynchronous approach, you could require groups to provide a progress reflection to be submitted to the VLE at key points within the task.
Group work has been a source of friction between learners and instructors for as long as it has been implemented. There is a wealth of research exploring the best approaches to group work, but there is no one single best approach or consensus on the best settings.
The key is to ensure that it adds value for the learners and that they can clearly understand how to engage and succeed within the activity.