Group Work Blues Confessions of a Loner

I have to say that the biggest gap in my strategies for online teaching is in the success of group activities. Both of our texts in EdTech 522 spend a serious amount of time talking about how to structure and facilitate small groups in online courses. But I confess that because I’m not a huge fan of traditional “group work” for online courses, I have a mindset against spending much time trying to get them to work in my courses.

My own experience is to work on my own design projects alone or with small groups of trusted and vetted professionals that I know are dedicated to getting work done. These relationships have been built over time and we have longstanding  respect for each other’s talents.  Group work in the shorter online courses like we have at our college just smacks of the contrived and artificial – something students dread for the most part.

My attitude could also have something to do with my impression (and past experiences in undergrad work) that forced group work in college courses inevitably becomes one or two people in the group working really hard and one or two others in the group not contributing much in the way of time or work product. It also could have to do with the fact that our quarter system of 10 weeks leaves very little time for a true group dynamic to form and any work to actually get done.

I also have to say that my group work experiences at the graduate level have been positive, both in face to face and online courses, but I think the older, more experienced student profile for the groups I worked in lends itself to more productive processes and workflow. We are all grad students, dedicated to learning,  more professional, more willing to make the group thing work.

At the community college level, I’ve observed several online courses where a major final project is done and graded via groups – these were fully online courses and the groups  were  4-5 students who self-selected which groups they wanted to be in. Within two weeks of the course getting started, the groups were together and working out how they would proceed. But the instructor did very little in the way of describing how they should work. In fact she insisted they make their own rules. The reason given was this is more like what happens in the workplace. In addition, many of these groups arranged to meet face-to-face to work out details of the project which I thought was kind of flying in the face of having the course online in the first place. Shouldn’t we be teaching students how to collaborate virtually? And what about the student who can’t make a face-to-face meeting due to time, work or transportation? On the surface, the groups seemed to do OK – I did have access to group discussion areas and it appeared that groups were getting work done, so I thought “Yes, it is possible! ”

When I tried the same technique in a fully online course of my own, it was a disaster and the drama within two particular groups became an ongoing fire I had to attend to throughout the course. Later I found out from the instructor I observed that, behind the scenes, she constantly had to referee student issues within groups, that sometimes one or two people ended up carrying the load of the group because of drop-outs and she had to employ many contingency plans for groups that just ended up falling apart with only one student remaining who was willing to do the work.  Now that does sound like what happens in the workplace when groups are formed with very little guidance as to how they should operate!

Note to self – dig a little deeper and ask more questions about what really goes on in a course that appears to run smoothly with group work.

Dawley (2007) suggests that creating a solid learning community is essential to a successful group experience. She goes on to say that “With younger adults, or those who may be new to small group work, begin establishing the norms by which the classroom and group discussions will operate” (p. 108). I think I would push this further and say that I should be  establishing the norms of how the groups operate as a whole for the course.  Student input should be included so they have some skin in the game, but I’ve found that many students have had bad experiences with group work and prefer to have some set of norms or procedures established for them that they can work from. I especially don’t like the practice of throwing students into a group situation and seeing who “steps up” and into leadership roles.  I think that leads to one or two people in the group always making decisions or being in competition as the leader of the group. I think I would prefer finding some strategies  that use work related roles such as “designer, proofreader, researcher”, not leadership or management focused roles. Unless, of course, it’s a leadership or management class that is teaching students how to fill those types of roles.

Finally, I have to question the idea of using groups for high stakes projects and assigning the same grade to everyone in the group. I think that can lead to some members of the group nagging or even bullying others because their grade depends on the work of the slackers . I think it can also contribute to cheating or plagiarism if the project is a written document that everyone contributes to. Just one person not following through means that the rest of the group have to scramble at the end to pull together the work product.  Copy and paste plagiarism can save a lot of time in an emergency situation like that.

I often find myself skipping through the group activities sections of books about online teaching, but I think I need to revisit this idea and see if I can find a way to include smaller group or team-like activities in my courses that don’t end up taking over my time in a management kind of way.  I want students to enjoy collaborating, but I’m not convinced a full immersion in a group activity is advisable for all courses and for all types of students. Maybe the loners like me need to dip a toe in first and experience a little “group” a little at a time.

Resources

Dawley, L. (2007).  The Tools for Successful Online Teaching.  Hershey, PA:  Information Science Publishing.