Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Skills Instructors Need to Facilitate Online Group Work

The facilitation of group collaboration in an online course is one of the most challenging factors of teaching online. The skills required go beyond teaching and sharing one's area of expertise. "Specific strategies are needed to effectively implement online group projects. These include such things as how to help the students get to know one another, form groups, assign grades, explain group functions, use online tools to maximize interaction, and how to deal with non-participation of group members..." (Facilitation of Online Group Projects: Insights from Experienced Faculty Members, 2012).

Assigning Group Projects
The resource, Facilitation of Online Group Projects: Insights from Experienced Faculty Members  (2012) provides sound advice for educators starting out with group projects and recommends that faculty members ask themselves the following questions before undertaking group projects:
  • What is the desired learning objective?
  • Will the groups be assigned or will students choose their members?
  • How will students get to know each other and develop trust?
  • Will students receive direct experiences and assignments to help them learn group processes, or will they discover those during their projects?
  • How will students be graded?
Vital Skill #1 for Online Course Instructors: Creating a Social and Active Learning Community
Effective teamwork in any setting requires a level of trust among team members, including those in an online learning environment. In a virtual learning space such as Moodle, the implementation of activities and a sense of community in which students feel "safe" to be themselves and to be real is up to the course instructor to create, model and encourage (Rourke et al, 2001).

"It is always important to remember that in the online environment, we present ourselves in text. Because it is a flat medium, we need to make an extra effort to humanize the environment. In the face-to-face classroom, students have the opportunity to get to know one another as people--before or after class, during classroom discussions, and in other campus locations such as the student lounge. In the online environment, we need to create these opportunities more purposefully" (Palloff & Pratt, 2001, p. 32).

The creation of a short welcome video (no longer than two to three minutes) to post at the beginning of the online course that welcomes the students to the class, and tells the students about him or herself--both professionally and personally will set a positive, interactive tone for the course. This also makes the instructor appear to be approachable.

Vital Skill #2 for Online Course Instructors: Demonstrating Leadership
The online instructor is more than a subject matter expert, he or she is also a champion of student learning. Instructors should be a role model by modeling effective communication; showing presence by posting messages on the course site about the class's progress and participation; giving feedback on participation to individual students using email, chat, or a web conferencing tool; clearly outlining expectations for group collaboration and following up with students who are not meeting those expectations; and posting strategies for effective team work.

Vital Skill #3 for Online Course Instructors: Communication
Consistent and plentiful communication is central to helping students be successful. Feedback can be given in many different ways such as audio and video clips, synchronous communication tools such as Zoom, or on social media. Morrison (2014) acknowledges that the hardest part to using feedback modalities other than text is the initial learning curve associated with a new technology, but the rewards are great. The ITRC can be of great assistance in discovering and learning new communication tools.

Vital Skill #4 for Online Course Instructors: Dealing with Conflict
No one likes conflict and most of us avoid it at all costs, but conflict is part of team work. "When a conflict surfaces, welcome it and view it as a sign that a group is developing" (Palloff & Pratt, 2001). It is helpful to give students resources on how teams work and emphasize that conflict and disagreement is a by-product of teamwork and shows that the group is growing and learning. Some strategies shared by online instructors for dealing with conflict:
  • Outline in the instructions, steps to resolve team conflict, ie. address the problem early on; contact and discuss with the team leader; and contact the course instructor as a last resort.
  • Include a regular mechanism for peer evaluation for group projects so that students can communicate with you about the group's functioning.
  • If needed, schedule a synchronous group meeting where you act as a moderator to help the team get back on track. This can be done in Zoom or Google hangouts.
Vital Skill #5 for Online Course Instructors: Monitoring Student Progress and Providing Feedback
The job of the instructor is to facilitate the group process behind the scenes by reviewing the individual group discussion forums to see who is participating, who is not, and following up as needed. It will also be helpful for the instructor to post feedback on the progress of the group assignment and respond to student concerns and questions promptly.

Opportunities for instructor feedback can be established through small benchmarks of assignment due dates that lead up to the final assignment submission. For example, the outline for the final project might be due on xxx, draft of final assignment due on xxx, etc. This strategy builds in opportunities for the instructor to provide feedback and support during the group process instead of waiting until the assignment has been submitted.

References and Resources

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