When you consider how the process of learning occurs within an online classroom, you are likely to find that the necessary components of learning are still required, only the format and delivery of the materials has changed. One important aspect of learning that is necessary for any classroom environment is collaboration. A traditional classroom utilizes interactive discussions and an online platform utilizes discussion threads. It is possible to develop meaningful interactions and productive communication in both environments. One method of building upon these interactions is through the use of group projects. Within a traditional classroom an instructor can easily divide up students into groups and watch their progress. It is much more challenging in an online classroom to establish conditions that will lead to effective group interactions. The potential benefits for developing group assignments in an online classroom include meeting the needs of self-directed adult learners. If an instructor establishes a specific framework for a group assignment and monitors the interactions, it is possible that group work can be utilized to enhance the process of online learning.
Self-Directed Adult Learners
A typical online student is an adult learner who is seeking the acquisition of knowledge and the development of skill sets for their professional needs. These students want to be actively involved in the process of learning and they are willing to take responsibility for their involvement. They come to the classroom with existing knowledge and experience that is often shared during class discussions. Through their participation in the discussion board students are able to learn from each other but they never have a chance to directly work with each other. By developing group work they will develop team-building, negotiation, delegation, consensus-building, and communication skills, which can be utilized in their careers. Instructors may experience resistance from some students if they have never been asked to complete this type of assignment an online classroom; however, if a clearly defined process is established and the purpose is clearly explained that may overcome their initial hesitation.
An Instructor’s Involvement
There are additional reasons why group work is not utilized within an online classroom and include a lack of time within an accelerated degree program, pre-programmed course curriculum designs, and resistance by instructors who may believe that the process is too complicated. For class that runs only five or six weeks there is limited time available to implement an extensive group project. Instructors that are working with a pre-programmed set of learning activities may also not have the flexibility to incorporate additional assignments. In addition, instructors may believe that there is too much work involved to set up a group project. Not only does a working structure need to be established, the instructor must also be proactively involved by offering direction, support, guidance, and feedback throughout the entire process. Many adjunct instructors that are facilitating classes part-time while also working full-time may not have the additional availability required.
Tools & Techniques
What is needed to make the group process effective is a working structure that includes a timeline, assignment due date, specific learning objectives, ground rules, expected outcomes, and a format for interactions to occur. Many instructors begin the process by assigning students to teams and having them develop and agree to a team contract, which outlines responsibility, participation, and required contributions. Next, the decision needs to be made where the student interactions will occur. For some online platforms it is possible to have a dedicated thread for each group. For those platforms that do not allow the creation of an additional thread, student interactions must occur through other electronic means such as e-mail or instant message. A dedicated thread within the classroom is the most effective choice, as instructors can monitor students’ interactions and intervene as needed. If the interactions occur outside of the classroom it would be helpful to have students provide an update or periodic report.
It is possible that some students may resist being assigned to a group because of their preferred learning style. This challenge can be addressed by relating the group project to their professional needs and the development of team-building skills that can be utilized on the job. Students are likely to benefit from the group process because they may gain real-world perspectives, experiences, and ideas from other students, which will engage their critical thinking and reflective skills. When a group assignment is developed this presents an opportunity to have students work with the course materials in a way that brings it to life, by requiring them to find sources, develop solutions, address problems, and apply the knowledge acquired to their career. Group assignments have a potential to enhance online learning by transforming adult learning into it interactive process, provided that the instructor has established a working structure that promotes collaboration, effective communication, and teamwork.
About the Mentor: Dr. Bruce Johnson has had a life-long love of learning and throughout his entire career he has been involved in many forms of adult education; including teaching, training, human resource development, coaching, and mentoring. Dr. J has completed a master’s in Business Administration and a PhD in the field of adult education, with an emphasis in adult learning within an online classroom environment. Presently Dr. J works as an online adjunct instructor, faculty developmental workshop facilitator, and faculty mentor.