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.


How to Work with Google Drive Folder Shared with You

We have been trying to streamline the process of storing and sharing files, especially in document-intense courses like Field Seminars and Practica. While there are a number of advantages to setting up our system this way, there has been some difficulty navigating around the shared folders as they don’t always feel intuitive for a particular task. All of the course documents are shared to allow anyone who has the link to view the contents of the folder. You can also download certain types of files without as much as logging into Google.

1. In the Course Navigation Menu on your left, click on Course DocumentsIn your course click on Course Documents in the navigation menu2. You will be able to view documents all at once either as a grid or a list. You can click on any of the documents and get an instant preview.


3. Close the file preview, and add documents to your Drive. If you are not signed in already, click on the blue [SIGN IN] button on the right, then after you have signed it, click on [ADD TO DRIVE], and then [OPEN IN DRIVE] for full features. You will only need to “ADD TO DRIVE” once. After that, [OPEN IN DRIVE] will be available to you any time you access these documents from the course link – as long as you are signed in Google Drive.

Sign in Google Drive

580_Course_Documents 2

4. Click on desired files to open.

Google_Drive5. Once you are in the file, you may either copy it to your own drive and then make all sorts of edits, or download it to your computer and then make all sorts of edits.

make a copy or download a Google file

Note: You can also print any printable file, and when it comes to PDF and Word Files, even download them without logging in.

View Any File and Download PDF

Google Add-ons: MailChimp, HelloFax, EasyBib and Many More

At first, I wanted to write about Arts and Social Work, but that was quite a bit of a stretch as I was only going to tell you guys about a very cool Google Chrome extension (only works in Chrome, of course) called “Google Art Project”. It can enrich your web browsing experience by opening a beautiful piece of art every time you open a new tab (change it in options) or stick with one piece of art for the entire day, and it will change tomorrow. This will disable other extensions, like “Dayboard” for example. But then I thought that this wouldn’t meet the 500 word guidelines we have for our blog posts (ha-ha! not true!).

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Anyway, instead, I am going to offer information about Google Doc add-ons. These are special add-ons (scripts) which will increase functionality of your docs, and provide extra features not available otherwise. No trip to the Google Doc Add-ons Store needed, because below you will find some of the highlights.

So, you want the mail merge, or to fax a document, or get approval of your document or a signature, grade and organize your students’ papers, or just keep track of your references for a very formal paper with correct format EasyBib? Here is your list:

1. Doctopus – An octopus for docs! Teacher-built tool for scaffolding, managing, organizing, and assessing student projects in Google Drive. Doctopus gives teachers the ability to mass-copy (from a starter template), share, monitor student progress, and manage grading and feedback for student projects in Google Drive.

2. Merge by MailChimp

3. Letter Feed Workflows

4. Bibliography Creator (from EasyBib)

5. HelloFax

and 6. UberConference for conference calls within a Doc for up to 10 people

Find detailed descriptions and links to individual add-ons in this article 9 Useful Add-ons for Google Docs, and in this article, 7 of the Best New Add-ons.



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.

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  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!

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  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.