Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Elements for the Facilitation of Online Group Work and Collaboration

Instructors and students often cringe at the idea of group work--especially in an online course. Instructors often think that it is impossible to take group activities that they used to do in the face-to-face class and incorporate them into an online format. However, through the help of an instructional technologist, many of these activities can be successfully implemented in an online course. Collaboration in virtual environments has become an essential skill in the 21st century and teaching students how to work effectively in online groups becomes just as critical to the learning experience as the benefit of the knowledge gained through the learning experience itself. Research supports the premise that students, in well designed learning environments experience meaningful learning, develop higher order thinking, and learn to evaluate and acknowledge multiple viewpoints of their peers (Morrison, 2014).

Though we know the benefits and acknowledge the value of group work, the question remains--how can faculty create an experience that facilitates this kind of learning in an online course?

Developing a Strong Learning Community
The traditional classroom provides students with the opportunity to work in groups in order to build trust and cohesiveness through verbal cues, facial expressions, and physical presence. In order to create a social presence and safe learning environment in an online class, certain elements should be considered. "Currently, online collaborative learning tends to focus on the cognitive process by emphasizing task-oriented communication, while assuming that the social dimension will occur automatically via communicative technologies (Kreijns et al., 2003). However, individuals will not willingly share their tentative ideas or critically challenge others' opinions unless they trust group members and feel a sense of belonging (Kreins et all, 2003; Rourke, 2000). Therefore, collaboration often remains shallow due to the lack of effective group support."

Elements of Effective Collaboration
  1. Social Presence: For students to be successful in an online learning environment, they should be given the opportunity to introduce themselves, make connections with their classmates, and establish themselves in the learning community. According to Morrison (2014), student anonymity in learning spaces is a barrier to establishing trust and the building of a learning community. Establishing presence can be facilitated through, 1) introductions at the beginning of the course, 2) synchronous lecture sessions in which students can chat on back channels such as Twitter, etc., 3) orientation activities at the beginning of the course, 4) a social media platform for the class outside of Moodle. It is also a good idea to wait until two weeks into the semester before assigning group work.
  2. Presence of a Leader: There are two aspects to this element. The leadership of the instructor in which he or she supports the group work, ie. dealing with group members who don't participate, helping to solve problems, and providing feedback to groups in the process. Second, the presence of a positive leader within the group is necessary. A student can be assigned by the instructor to be the leader of the group and that group leader acts as the liaison between the group and the instructor.
  3. Purpose and Clear Instructions: Outlining why students are completing a given learning activity is critical so that students don't perceive the activity as busy work. When they understand the purpose of the activity, students are more likely to engage and commit to a group project when it is aligned closely with the learning objectives. State the purpose clearly in the activity instructions, "the purpose of this activity is __________" and provide details such as due date, grading scheme, and group structure.
  4. Skill Development for Working in a Team: Students rarely possess the skill set required for effective group collaboration, sharing and/or discussions in online spaces. This makes it necessary for the instructor to provide skill development resources for group interaction such as specific guidelines for communicating (Netiquette rules, whether they can use emoticons, etc.); and steps to solve group problems, including an option that involves the instructor as a resource. Stepping in as a mediator may be necessary for the instructor at times, so that students can be walked through problem solving steps via a group meeting using synchronous tools such as Zoom or Ultra.
  5. Technology: Instructors may need to guide students to the best platforms for communicating synchronously and asynchronously. Students often cite technology as a barrier to group projects, so minimizing that barrier will be helpful.
Next month: Vital Skills Instructors Need to Facilitate Online Group Work

References and Resources
Morrison, D. (February 10, 2014). Five Elements that Promote Learner Collaboration and Group Work in Online Courses. Online Learning Insights.

Williams, K.C.,  Cameron, B.A., Morgan, K. & C. Wade, (2012). Facilitation of Online Group Projects: Insights from Experienced Faculty. Paper presented at 28th Annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning

An, H., Kim, S., & Kim, B. (2008). Teacher perspectives on online collaborative learning: Factors perceived as facilitating and impeding successful online group work. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 8(1), 65-83.

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