Online Group Work: Forming Groups, Creating Focus and Maintaining Interest

During the past two weeks, our group has thought about group work. This has of course made us more aware of our own group work practices. I think we were already pretty good at it, but it never hurts to get in a bit more practice. We started out with a few articles from which I gathered the following points.

There are problems like the free-rider and sucker effect in any group work scenario, but sharing the workload is generally seen as one of the major benefits of collaborative group work (Chang & Kang 2016). The problem is that some people end up doing most of the work while others sit back and enjoy the ride. This is probably a natural process where everyone in the group finds a suitable role and this role becomes solidified over time. I sometimes break up established groups in my own courses, because I have been told I should do so, but I have always felt a little bad about it. It can seem disruptive to the students. In other words, if students have managed to create a working group dynamic, why should the teacher break it up? It turns out that the free-rider and sucker effect is one reason to let students form new groups. The trick here would seem to be to recognize groups that work really well and, if necessary, reform groups periodically to avoid poor group dynamics.

Online work is a special form of group work, because it also involves maintaining focus, which can be tricky (Tsai 2013). I might as well confess that I once updated my Facebook page during one of our online meetings. We are all curious monkeys who will wander off in all kinds of tangents when the opportunity presents itself. Because the Internet is basically a giant machine to distract you from whatever you are doing, it happens. As I write this, I am streaming music, being prompted my social media accounts and already planning my next email. The Internet, as great as it can be, is a very noisy place.

Distractions do not have to be seen only in negative terms. The benefits of collaborative group work may have to do (at least to some extent) with the fact that group members want to act on what actually interests them (Donaldson & Bucy 2016). If our natural curiosity can be harnessed to service the task at hand, it can do wonders. I am sure most academically oriented people know what it is like to be driven to make sense of topics in their own field. We apply this in our own ONL group by dividing up topics according to what interests each group member. Sometimes the topics overlap, but this has not been a problem. When it happens, we get two or more perspectives on the same topic, which is a good thing.

When you are acting as a teacher, it is probably best to outline a project in a way that enables each student to pursue his or her interests. In other words, the framework of the project should be designed in a way that allows such pursuits. I have to also think that much of monitoring a group work projects involves getting out of the way once the project has been set up. Facilitating and monitoring the project are of course important, and online courses enable this in various ways, but once the group has found its footing, it is probably best to simply let things happen.

Chang, B., & Kang, H. (2016). Challenges Facing Group Work Online. Distance Education, 37(1), 73-88. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2016.1154781

Donaldson, J. P., & Bucy, M. (2016). Motivation and Engagement in Authorship Learning. College Teaching, 64(3), 130-138. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2015.1125842

Tsai, C.-W. (2013). How to Involve Students in an Online Course: A Redesigned Online Pedagogy of Collaborative Learning and Self-Regulated Learning. International Journal of Distance Education Technologies, 11(3), 47-57. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.4018/jdet.2013070104

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