Starting off an Online Student Group Project on the Right Foot

Have you ever considered incorporating an online group project into one of your courses? Perhaps you would like your students to work collaboratively on a document. Maybe you’d like them to compile an annotated bibliography, collaboratively write and edit an analytical paper, or produce a group presentation using GoogleDocsCourseweb/BlackBoard features like Wikis, or any number of available online collaborative platforms.

For many students, however, online group work may be an entirely new and intimidating concept. Group projects present challenges in their own right, including role designation, coordination of schedules, monitoring of individual contributions, and arriving at a consensus: providing the opportunity to work on such projects in an online environment can either help address those challenges or exacerbate them, depending upon an instructor’s design and maintenance of the assignment, as well as internal group dynamics and levels of individual contribution.

One way to set the tone for an online student group project is to make the first component of the full group assignment a collaborative project to determine the parameters of group interaction and expectations, which the group will follow. Consider providing them with a template (in, for example, a Word document which can be uploaded to each group’s GoogleDoc) which prompts them to address common questions and issues, which will likely arise explicitly or implicitly during the course of the group project. Provide the template of questions to the students and require them to collaboratively formulate a consensus to those answers.

Questions you could pose to your students in such a template might include:

  • What will the roles of your group members be? Will you have a leader? An organizer? An editor?
  • What platforms will you use to collaborate? GoogleDocs? Skype? E-mail? Telephone?
  • How will you schedule meetings? Will you meet synchronously or asynchronously?
  • What will you do if a group member misses a meeting?
  • What will you do if you feel a member is not pulling his or her weight?
  • How will you come to a consensus? Majority vote? Leader has final say?
  • How many “final reads” will you require?
  • How will you determine when you have “finished” an assignment?
  • Who will ensure that you meet assignment deadlines?
  • What circumstances would lead you to involve the instructor in your internal group dynamics?
  • What are your major goals for this assignment?

Including this initial assignment, prompting student groups to work collaboratively to answer these questions about the group itself, not only establishes the expectations and working procedures for an online student group moving forward in the semester, it also allows the students to immediately begin the actual collaborative process, setting a tone and acting as a reference for the remainder of the project.

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