A year after being thrust into virtual learning, professors and students agree online learning and Zoom classes are workable, but it is just not the same as in-person learning. The benefits of online learning are well-established in research, but what is often lost are those in-class collaboration opportunities (whether carefully constructed or impromptu) where new ideas are sparked and students become truly engaged. This is the energy that invigorates and keeps students, as well as professors, passionate about learning. The question then becomes how does one create meaningful opportunities for collaboration while online? Even in a hyflex environment, where students alternate between in-person and synchronous online sessions, the COVID-19 restrictions limit interactions. Students have to maintain physical distance and professors need to consider how—or whether—to allow the sharing of materials. Some students may have reservations about being close to others or even being in the classroom at all. All of these restrictions stifle the opportunities for cooperative learning. Best practices in education are changing, but good teachers adapt to learning environments, and there are ways to create synergy in your courses, foster higher levels of learning, and bring joy back into the classroom.
The teaching mode
First, consider your required teaching mode; this will narrow your focus when developing collaborative learning opportunities. Fully online courses will need to effectively utilize the learning platform tools (i.e. discussion boards, group chats, Zoom). There are many current resources available on developing rigorous online courses. Publications like The Teaching Professor and Inside Higher Ed offer many articles on tips for how to do this. Additionally, the US Department of Education published an analysis of evidence-based best practices for online teaching. Hyflex courses will need to be proficient with the online learning platform tools, while also strategically utilizing the face-to-face sessions for collaborative learning. Hyflex environments provide an opportunity to flip the classroom, creating interactive collaboration days during the in-person sessions and asynchronous online learning sessions.
Next, consider your space. Depending on parameters of your workplace (6 feet of distance, outdoor classrooms, limited room capacity, etc.), you will need to adjust your expectations to meet your new reality. One of the easiest adjustments is to reduce the group size. If you typically placed four to five students per group, reduce it to two to three students. This allows each group to spread out. Perhaps you can use an empty classroom or hallway space to allow more distancing. You can also have groups that include your remote students by utilizing breakout rooms (just be sure your in-person students have their computers with them). Rather than rotating groups each session, keep the groups the same for the semester to reduce contact transmission in the course. Likewise, have group members work from their desks rather than get up and move around the room. Students can pivot in their chair to talk with a neighbor without getting out of their seats or work simultaneously on a shared document. Encourage teams to use the chat function so they can “talk” in real time. If students need to be close for a particular activity, limit the interaction to 10 minutes or less. Depending on the length of your class, you could have two or three of these interactions in one session. Some cooperative learning is better than none!
Considering your materials
Consider the materials necessary for the assignment. When possible, turn the assignment into a fillable PDF document or Google doc/slides/sheets. This allows group members to continue to work together in the classroom but eliminates the need for shared paper documents. It is also inclusive of remote students. Students contributing in real time to the document along with an oral discussion creates an interactive learning environment. Chat functions through the documents or through email come in handy as well. Try having virtual brainstorming sessions using websites like Popplet or Padlet. Make your lecture more interactive for in-person and virtual students by using Nearpod. Consider if students can bring their own materials, assuming they are easily obtainable. If materials must be shared, be sure to have cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer readily available. Account for extra sanitizing time in your schedule.
Whether you modify your mode, space, or materials, collaboration can still occur in this new age of virtual and hyflex teaching. Like most best practices, implementing these strategies cannot happen without foresight and planning. Shift from thinking of one major, end-of-course group assignment to multiple, small group collaborations. The structure of hyflex/virtual learning is designed for independent learning. To overcome this, you need to consider revamping the major group project and focus on increasing the number of lower stake collaborations. The virtual/hyflex model hinges on flexibility and structure. If you go into the course with a solid plan and communicate that to students, they will be more flexible when new strategies don’t quite work out as planned.
Additionally don’t be afraid to ask your students their thoughts on how they would implement the activity. They are a great resource as they may have experienced another group activity that went well or suggestions for making the activity more successful. For example, our students told us that Zoom breakout rooms which last longer than five minutes were not effective because they didn’t talk to each other. As professors, we thought they were engaging in great discussions but, in reality, they were completing the work independently while muted and with blank screens! After a candid discussion, we were able to revamp the breakout rooms to shorter time frames with more specific objectives to be completed, as well as stay in the same peer groups for the semester.
Establishing positive learning
Establishing a positive learning environment within the course may be the most important element required to be successful in creating those meaningful discussions and learning experiences, which come from collaborative learning experiences. Creating opportunities for students to get to know each other is essential to student engagement. When students feel connected to the class, they will participate more actively and blank Zoom screens will flip back on. Personal connections begin on day one of the semester but must be fostered throughout the following weeks.
Remember, group work does not have to be a giant end-of-course project. Rather, it is often the smaller, less time-consuming group activities that develop the greatest rapport between students and spark interest and motivation to learn.
Katie D. Lewis, EdD, is an associate professor at York College of Pennsylvania, formerly of Texas A&M International University. She teaches undergraduate education courses and is the program coordinator for secondary education, post-baccalaureate and transfer students. Dr. Lewis has five years of experience teaching in public schools where she served as grade chair, lead science teacher, gifted cluster teacher, and mentor to student teachers. She actively serves on leadership committees for NAGC and TAGT.