e-learning,  good online,  onlinepivot

Good online learning – group work

Like many of you I’ve been getting rather exasperated by the “online = bad, face to face = good” narrative that seems to have arisen post-pandemic (Tim Fawns has a good thread on this by the way). So I thought I’d try a series on some of the ways in which online learning can be done effectively. I mean, I know it won’t make any difference, but shouting into the void can be therapeutic. They’ll be a mix of research and my own experience.

First up, every student’s favourite way of working – group work! Going right back to the early days of e-learning, group work has always been a hot topic. Diana Laurillard’s conversational framework was influential in helping structure online learning, and Gilly Salmon’s 5 stage e-moderating model was used by many to structure online group work. There are many other models also – you can go rhizomatic, connectivist, communities of practice, and so on. In some respects, I don’t think it matters too much which one you choose (as long as it’s not one predicated on digital natives or hole in wall). The point is to use a well established model to help you construct online interaction in a way that is different from face to face. So when I hear people say things like “we don’t know what works online” I do wonder what it is they actually want to meet their needs.

Some basic things to say about online group work first of all:

  1. Synchronous vs asynchronous makes a big difference, so not all ‘online’ is the same
  2. It takes muuuuuuuuch longer to realise, especially if you are operating asynchronously. Activities you might have scheduled for an afternoon can take 3 weeks online by the time negotiation happens, people disappear, you wait for responses, etc.
  3. Like nearly all online learning, it requires careful design, detailed instructions and guidance. More so than face to face where you can modify things on the fly.
  4. Some of the social glue necessary for groups to work well may be missing online (Salmon’s model establishes the importance of this). This highlights the value of intentionally establishing social connections early on in an online course, as it will reap benefits later.
  5. Operating in the online medium at the start means group activities based around co-creation of media, finding resources, commenting, etc are readily achieved. Students are in that space already.
  6. Asynchronous can provide flexibility and reassurance for many students who struggle in face to face groups.
  7. Retention in online courses is generally a bit lower than face to face. Group work presents a sometimes stressful component of any course, and thus can act as a risk area, where students may decide to drop out. It needs careful design, support and handling to prevent it becoming the ‘skid patch’ on an icy road.
  8. Students hate it about as much as they hate face to face group projects, but also kind of appreciate it afterwards.

This is not intended as an in-depth review of online group work literature. It is not a topic short of research. But my take-aways would be that it is completely achievable, and will give all the same benefits you would gain from face to face group work, therefore it should be implemented for the same reasons. It does require more thought, design and time to get right than face to face group work. Simply translating group activities you did in a seminar to online is not going to work. It can create stress for students, but then so does face to face group work (introverts will feel this), but these may be different ones, so the type of support required may vary.

In general though, do it, but design carefully. I’ll end with this quote from Curtis and Lawson, who researched online collaboration back in 2001. It could have been written as advice to people in 2022, and pretty much sums up what I’ve said:

there is evidence that successful collaboration as described in face-to-face situations is possible in online learning environments. The medium does influence the interactions that are possible and that student familiarity with the medium and the ease of use of the interface are
important factors. Instruction for students in the use of the software and better preparation for the challenges of collaborative learning, especially negotiation and other group skills, are likely to produce a more effective learning system.


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