Promoting Collaborative Learning in Online Courses

One of the biggest problems with doing group projects online (and face-to-face) is student resistance, says Jan Engle, coordinator of instruction development at Governors State University. “One of the best ways to overcome resistance is obviously for students to have a positive experience. Unfortunately, many of them come into an online class having had a very negative experience with group work. Almost always, those negative experiences stem from problems where they’ve been on teams where they ended up doing most of the work and other people did nothing and everybody got the same grade,” Engle says.

To prevent this inequity, Engle makes participation in group work mandatory and uses peer evaluation to encourage equal participation. Grades consist of two elements: the group grade of the product itself and a grade for participation (based on peer review).

Engle provides a rubric for peer evaluation. Failure to participate in group projects is an automatic one-course grade deduction. “I do that primarily because really bad group experiences and failure to participate in the online environment just decimate the sense of community we’ve worked so hard to develop up to that point,” she says.

Preliminary collaborative learning projects in Engle’s courses tend to be relatively easy and fun, in order to emphasize group processes. “Before you actually launch a project, it’s important to make sure early on that everybody knows who’s doing what and that they have contingency plans,” she says. “And if they have nonparticipating members, I give groups the ability to fire a member, so that they are not continually spending all of their energy trying to chase someone who is not going to participate anyhow.”

She offers suggestions on using threaded discussions and chat and asks students to address the following organizational issues:

  • How are you going to divide the project so that each team member has a part?
  • Who is going to be responsible for each part?
  • How are you going to communicate during the project?
  • How will members submit their work to the group?
  • What is the deadline for the submissions of individual pieces?
  • Who is going to be responsible for putting the pieces together into one paper?
  • How are you going to handle final proofing?
  • What will you do if somebody does not do his or her part or does not meet deadlines?
  • How are you going to go about answering questions that group members might have about the project?

Engle also monitors all groups by making herself a member of every discussion group. “Early on, I’m paying attention to groups in which I’m not seeing any activity,” she says. “If I’m not seeing any activity in the discussion thread, then I’ll post a message to that group, saying something such as, ‘It looks like you’re getting off to a slow start. Are there any problems that you need help with?’”

An important consideration in incorporating group work into an online course is making sure that it suits the goals of the course and that it makes “authentic use of the content that’s being presented,” Engle says. “If you use group work simply for the sake of incorporating group work, you’re probably not going to create an engaging exercise.”

Excerpted from How to Promote Collaborative Active Online Learning, Online Classroom, Nov. 2006.