Collaboration in Online Courses: Group Work

putting together a jigsaw

We often use group work in our online courses, and success varies among courses, projects, and students.

Overall, our ultimate goal is organic learning, fostering an online community of learners and stimulating active participation in it. This, however, is not always achieved with a stellar consistency.

Reflecting on our use of groups in courses, a few issues become apparent. Recognizing and addressing these issues is an important part of the course design process.

This article examines some of the things you commonly find in a course with groups and group project, and some factors that can either make or break or improve the user experience, and offers suggestions on what to include in order to ensure collaboration opportunities and go beyond basic cooperation. 

While a facilitator plays an enormous role in student overall experience, the key is to design tasks that are truly collaborative, meaning the students will benefit more from doing the activity as a group than doing it alone. A complex task that requires everyone to contribute to a group project is often the way to ensure success.

Shadow Curriculum

All tasks assume that we have a certain prerequisites or skills, without necessarily explicitly stating these. Sometimes, the skills are easy to pick up, other times, a barrier to entry is too much for an individual to engage in an assignment, thus causing enormous frustration. Some frustration is good and healthy, and encourages learning (at least, constructivists believe so!).

In the same breath, we assume that our students have skills necessary for successful group work. In some instances, it is true and they do. In other instances, they have skills to compensate the lack of asynchronous group work skills. Since our students come mostly from a brick and mortar post-secondary degree background, it’s also likely they don’t have these skills (to collaborate in the asynchronous online environment) and as a result, additional communication and scaffolding need to take place.

In a course, students should have guidance concerning how to work in an asynchronous team to help them build those skills. In addition, there should already exist numerous opportunities in a course for community building. One gets to exercise ever more creativity when a course is only 8 weeks long. It will also help our cause to indicate that a course which has group projects will require more frequent communication from the get-go – and such an expectation upfront will help inform a student’s schedule for the term.

Frequent communication with groupmates may happen in a number of ways. It may be a shared Google Document, with comments and a chat built in. It may also be synchronous Skype or Google Hangouts sessions (or any other tool that provides similar services). It may be scheduled or ad hoc – where it helps to see who is currently online and available. It also may be weekly “office hours” with the instructor during which students can address their questions – for example, if the instructor has a “room” (or whatever the nomenclature is in a particular environment/LMS) and makes it available to students for use as “a study room” – very similar to study rooms in brick and mortar buildings.

At all times, this implies that students both have sufficient knowledge and skills to use such tools, and that the tools are readily available to them.

This sort of “shadow curriculum” has to be addressed during the course, in order to facilitate more productive group work.

Identifying Problems and Realistic Solutions

This paper identifies the most common problems and possible solutions to those when it comes to group work, and is a quick read.

As always, building in a contingency plan – in case, a groupmate is MIA or drops out or is somewhat apathetic about the group assignment; or skill level is not as expected; or the project needs revising on the spot to accommodate whatever may come up, – has to be part of the design process as well, and is essential when the term timeline is already intense.


Video Annotations and Discussions

faces with a play button as in video

In our courses, we sometimes use videos as a prompt to start a discussion. The video is most likely to be included in the viewing section (aka Multimedia or Watch this), and possibly a link would be included in the prompt itself. It’s also possible to streamline the discussion flow by removing the permission to create a new thread on the student part. As creative as we can get when we push against Blackboard limitations, the result is not often optimal. I am going to show a couple of options where the interface is way friendlier.


This is a good social tool for annotating videos. You may use it with your own video from YouTube or use other people’s videos. It’s clean, may create a conversation among viewers (signing in with an existing account, such as Google user, required for responses and adding notes, but not for viewing). Create as many as you want. (Optional viewing)


Another similar service is provided by Vialogues. Here, too you can have a discussion (text discussion) of whatever is happening on the screen, plus the discussion can be guided by preset comments/annotations for others to react to in the context of the video.

Web Annotation with Hypothesis Extension

One of the most powerful differences between printed text and digital text, as we’ve already covered, is the ability to annotate in the margins as you would a physical book. We’ve talked about tools that allow you to annotate screenshots, and tools that allow you to curate, then annotate, webpages and articles–now, I want to cover a tool, and point anyone interested toward the philosophy that underpins its existence, that allows you to annotate the web directly.

The tool is called Hypothesis, and it is the product of a team that goes by the same name. Hypothesis lives in your browser and allows you to, when you highlight a section of text with your cursor, annotate that text. The annotation’s relationship to the page’s content is stored online, and is viewable by other users of Hypothesis as well as, of course, always there for you when you return to view the page. The annotations can be hidden or shown, and each annotation supports the ability to hold conversations about the highlighted text in the Hypothesis sidebar.

First, highlight the text with the extension activated.

Hypothesis Pop-Up

Then select either the pen to simply leave it highlighted, or the text-entry icon if you have immediate thoughts.

Hypothesis Highlight

Then notice in the Hypothesis sidebar that all the highlighted/annotated text on the page your browser now shows is organized. Conversations can be had here with other Hypothesis users, or if you yourself are the teacher and have highlighted a section then shared your annotations with your students, between students.

hypothesis comment

The goal of the Hypothesis is to give users the ability to build a collaborative meta-layer overtop the web and all its content and properties, encouraging more deliberative growth and awareness of the online world as it continues to grow and evolve. For our purposes as educators, Hypothesis is an easy-to-use tool for collaboratively studying web resources. If Hypothesis continues to grow and develop as planned, then I think it will continue to be more useful to online educators and their students who want to be able to have contextual conversations about resources that are as web-persistent and nav-relevant as the resources themselves.

Dropbox or …?

Types of Cloud Storage Services – 3 and 3 – Part 1

(In Part 2, I’ll return to talk about Drive, OneDrive and iCloud)

Box, Copy and Dropbox


This group of cloud services is simpler than the group I will cover in this two-part series, “Types of Cloud Storage Services.” Box, Copy and Dropbox provide some ancillary services, but their focus is in providing cloud storage and sharing. All install a folder directly on your computer which you can drag files into and out of in order to upload or download those files from the cloud. Sharing with these tools is simple: You put the file in the folder, share the file with those other [whatever the service is] users and set those other users’ permissions accordingly. Once a file is shared, whenever anyone updates and then saves over the original, he or she is doing so for everyone (great for student projects). Additionally, each of these services allows public links to the files/folders to be created, so that even people without a Box, Copy or Dropbox account can still view and download the file for which you provide access.

copy_cloud_storage_logo_icon_psd_by_hakarune-d6h52dnThe distinctions between these first three apps come in the form of permissions, gradations of control over updates to files, and complexity. The spectrum runs from complex control, Box, to simple use, Dropbox, with Copy somewhere in between. Box targets corporate use, and so gives users a bunch of ways to control permissions over group and individual access to folders. For larger institutions tackling complex projects with separate groups who need hierarchically different levels of permissions, Box is real handy. For less complex uses, the granularity of control may be unnecessary or even onerous.

Most classroom uses are not complicated enough to merit the use of Box, but it deserves to be listed here anyway. It is a fantastic tool.

DropboxDropbox and Copy both give users an ample number of permissions settings, providing plenty granularity of control over how students/colleagues/staff can access or modify files you share with them, with the added benefit that they’re extremely easy/intuitive to use. There are distinctions between Dropbox and Copy, mostly to do with Copy’s “Fair Storage” model (which is pretty awesome, it should be said), but they are close enough that choosing one comes down to personal preference.

Finally, it should be noted that I have accounts with each of these services–choosing one doesn’t mean tossing the rest. However, I do end up using Box for certain tasks, Dropbox for others, and Copy…well, I’ve only just gotten into Copy. So consider how you will be using the cloud, and that will help you to decide what you use.

Classroom uses of the Cloud

  • Keeping track of all your materials–and student materials–no matter where you are or what computer your using
  • Student portfolio building
  • Student peer review of portfolios
  • Small group collaboration on complex projects comprising large numbers of files and a diverse set of file types (images, videos, documents, PDFs, etc.)
  • Resource gathering and sharing
  • Exchanging files too large to be emailed

Introducing Classroom by Google Apps

As you know, there are a number of Google Apps we are using every day here at UNE. You can choose to use the Calendar or Google Hangouts, but of course, we make everyone use Google Drive and Google Docs in particular. What a great way to share documents and work collaboratively!
Now, Google is introducing another app which should be coming sometime in September. Watch how Google Classroom works in this clip. The ease with which the docs can be shared and collected is pretty awesome – if it really works the way they show it in this teaser. While the assignment (what I did last summer) is a textbook (horrid) assignment, it is the process itself that we are after in this case.

Learn more, and sign up to try it (eventually) at this link.

Using Google Documents to Allow for Inline Commenting

When the Blackboard was updated, many instructors were thrilled to see the inline commenting feature which allowed them to pinpoint their comments to a particular line or even word when grading an assignment. Did you know that Google Docs has a similar feature and it’s one of the best uses of Google Docs for collaboration?

How it can be used:

  1. One idea is to use the Google Docs for commenting on a reading assignment. This is a common task in a number of courses, where students have to express their thoughts on a particular article. This won’t replace the practice of properly citing and critiquing a scholarly article, but can definitely be used for a more engaging, collaborative commenting. See instructions below. It makes sense to unshare the article after the assignment has been completed. Another idea: you can also reuse it in subsequent courses, you can have students revisit their previous comments later in the same course to see if there was a change of heart or deeper understanding of the concepts; or as a sample for others.
  2. The other idea is to use this feature to gather feedback on a paper students are writing – much in the same way you would provide inline commenting while grading. A student would put their paper in Google Docs, and then instead of submitting a Word document as attachment or pasting the whole item into a discussion post, the link to the doc would be provided and students would follow it to comment. My guess is that with inline commenting it will be rather difficult to only give a “nice work!” type of feedback.

These are the obvious uses, but I am sure you can uncover more!

How to make it happen:

First, create an original document (student paper) in Google Docs or copy and paste an article (with proper citations and a note that states that makes it clear it is only for critiquing use under Fair Use Guidelines) into a new Google Doc.

Adjust sharing settings to be as follows:

  1. Under Share, click on Change…Screen Shot 2014-06-25 at 8.00.08 AM
  1. In Sharing settings, select “People at University of New England with the link” (especially for someone else’s article). Select “Anyone with the link” if students want to allow non-UNE accounts to access their paper.

Screen Shot 2014-06-25 at 7.59.43 AM

  1. After you saved the previous setting, change the options to “Can comment”. This will save you a lot of headache, and besides, it is this feature that we are after!

Screen Shot 2014-06-25 at 8.12.45 AM

  1. Copy and paste the link in either an announcement, discussion forum or some other course shared space for students to access. Each comment will carry the name of the author, so it’s easy to track.
  2. Notifications: In addition, you can have Google Docs email you when there are either replies to your comments or any comments at all. You can also turn off the notifications completely.
Notifications from Google Docs

Access Notifications to select between All, Replies to comments, or None.

Notifications: All, Replies to you. None

I would recommend choosing All for using it in the course. Google Docs will send you a digest rather than each comment separately.

Let me know what you think and if you would like to try it in a course or two. I think the feedback from students will be extremely positive!

The original idea came from the Free Technology for Teachers blog. I would also look into using Google Docs for collaborative writing in small groups, much like Google Sites is used for group projects. Google Docs allows you to revert to previous versions, or to make copies of documents for private use when needed.