Less Me and More We: Overcoming Aversion to Online Group Work
By Dawn Tasher
Dawn Tasher taught middle school for 8 years and is currently completing her Master’s Degree in Online Teaching and Learning from California State University, East Bay. As an online learner, she has been absolutely amazed by the overall experience and in an effort to share this gift with others she is currently making the transition to teaching community college online.
I will admit to having experienced dread upon reading a reference to group work in an online course syllabus. Such “forced communities” are not always welcomed by students. According to Dool (2007), 60% of surveyed students “dislike” team assignments. Nonetheless, the benefits of online group work are well-documented in the literature (Johri, 2006). Being an online student involved in many group projects has provided me with a good deal of insight into how to approach collaborative learning with my own students. After much research and reflection on factors that impact the online group process, I can offer some suggestions as to how instructors can create a successful experience and help their students overcome this aversion to online group work.
There is no “I” in Team
In an ideal world our students would come to our virtual classrooms with the skills required to work collaboratively in an online group. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case. Some students have little or no experience working in online groups. Others, like me, have had negative group experiences that affect their performance or perception of group work. Training students in the art of working collaboratively takes time, but it is a skill that will benefit them their entire academic career, as well as in the workplace and other aspects of life. Communication, cooperation and negotiation are skills that must be taught and practiced before collaboration can occur (du Toit & van Petegem, p. 46). Employers expect employees to have these team skills, and group work is an excellent way to acquire them (Goold, Craig, & Coldwell, 2008).
The Ties That Bind
For me, the opportunity to choose my own group equals automatic buy-in. I have admittedly been less enthusiastic about groups that I have been assigned to by an instructor. Students that are forced into an instructor-created group following a superficial icebreaker activity are not necessarily ready to perform as a cohesive unit. They must have an opportunity to get to know one another on a personal level and establish trust. The early formation of bonds between group members is crucial to the success of a group (Anderson, p.80). Instructors can facilitate this process with lighthearted initial group activities designed to foster learning relationships.
Diversity in Common
An online learning community is made up of members with diverse cultures, interests, goals, learning styles and work habits. In my experience, diversity has been a huge asset in group situations, helping teammates to view things from different perspectives. Realizing these benefits requires that students embrace their differences for their ability to enrich the group perspective rather than perceive them as differences that make it difficult to relate to one another. Khalsa (2007) promotes global thinking with a willingness to be open to all ideas as a factor important for group success.
Making a Pact
My most successful online group experience began with an assignment to establish a set of group guidelines or norms that would drive our direction and decisions. This opened a dialogue about our differences, expectations, and fears for the group at the onset of the project, so that we could circumvent all foreseeable problems. Palloff and Pratt (2007) hold that defining these norms as well as a clear code of conduct help establish an effective learning community. This “team charter” takes time to develop but ultimately results in a more efficient and productive work environment with less opportunity for confusion and frustration. These guidelines make expectations of fellow group members explicit. Just as a syllabus guides instructor-student expectations and interactions, the mutually-established team charter guides group members’ student-student relationships. Expectations for frequency of check-ins, project timelines, and netiquette can be established. Decisions such as when it is appropriate to edit someone’s work in a wiki can be made, and agreements can be reached as to how constructive criticism should be offered. According to McConnell (2006), instructors should encourage students to set up protocols for the mediums used. By taking part in making the “rules”, students have an opportunity to create the environment they want to collaborate in, making the overall experience satisfying and rewarding.
Leading the Way
I was once involved in a group project in which it was clear that all members had leadership qualities, so we decided to forgo the selection of one clear leader. Although we were individually strong, without a leader we were collectively weak. Our inertia forced us to recognize the leaderless approach as ineffective. Online collaborative groups need a leader (Kukulska-Hulme, 2009) and a range of member roles (Palloff and Pratt, 2007). According to Khalsa (2007), roles should be chosen and communicated before work begins.
Degrees of Clarity
Anyone who has been involved in a group activity where time was wasted debating the instructor’s expectations rather than collaborating as a team can understand the frustration that can result. This scenario can be easily avoided. Clearly delineated instructions (Dool, 2007) are the most obvious solution. Horton (2006) recommends providing clear grading criteria, a suggested timeline, and a challenging yet not overwhelming assignment. Dool (2007) suggests instructors make their presence known, monitoring and providing encouragement in “team rooms”.
A Fair Assessment
Traditionally, groups are expected to work collaboratively to earn one grade that is determined by the instructor and granted to all members. This has always felt inequitable to me both as a student and as a teacher. An instructor-developed group grade is important, but should not be the only means of assessment. Some individual accountability deters “social loafing” by group members so that collaborative learning is more effective (Conrad, 2009). According to Roberts (2007), it is unfair, harmful to the learning process, and may even be illegal under certain circumstances to assign group grades. Instructors can use tools such as student-kept logs of their contributions to group projects, or they can review the history of wiki pages to determine individual contributions to group work. Peer assessments as well as an element of self-assessment provide balance; a triangulation of these different approaches yields a better evaluation of the collaborative effort (Conrad, 2009).
The benefits of online group work are well-documented in the literature, but in order for them to be realized efforts must be taken to create a truly collaborative group. By taking certain measures we reduce student resistance to learning in groups and increase student buy-in. With a little information, preparation, and action, we can eliminate much of the dread factor for students and make online group work meaningful and enjoyable for our students.
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Dool, R. (2007). Mitigating Conflict in Student Online Teams [Powerpoint Slides] Retrieved July 18, 2009 from http://www.sloanconsortium.org/conference/proceedings/2007/ppt/1173615910531.ppt.
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