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Online Learning Tips: 5 Rules for Online Group Work

Editor’s Note: Online classes often require group projects to complete mid-terms or weekly assignments. Online group learning can make adult students feel uneasy – especially if it means being judged or graded on group projects.

Group project(Luigi Mengato/flickr)


Our student issues blogger, David Handlos, shares his tips for successful online learning when it comes to group work for students. For me group projects were one of the toughest parts of my first online classes.  Just like “pop quiz”, the words “group assignment” filled me with dread. Coordinating hectic schedules, interpreting mixed messages from team members, and a mad scramble to pull everyone together to meet group projects deadlines can make group work online a nightmare. My first online group project earned a passing grade, but it was the toughest part of class for me, and we all spent far more time on that assignment than expected. Since then, I’ve learned 5 tips for helping online students succeed:    


How to Make Online Group Projects More Bearable


1. Know Your Team and Instructor

Get to know your team members, where they live, what they do, and their schedules. Part-time students, which might make up your whole team, have scores of other work and family responsibilities. Getting a little personal with each team member can make it easier when it comes to sacrificing time to achieve a common learning goal. Also, get to know your online instructor and his or her teaching strategies. Engage him or her in an email dialog. Test how quickly they respond to questions, so you know what to expect. Note all the options you have for getting in contact. Do they have a phone number, or keep steady office hours? Does anyone on your team live near campus so they could meet face-to-face if needed?

2. Find A Specific Weekly Time to Meet

A team can’t function solely through email. A five-minute phone conversation often gets a point across verbally that 10 emails can’t. Plan phone meetings at least once a week to keep everyone in sync. The meetings can be short, but any more than a week without contact can thwart efforts to stay on track.

3. Find Someone to be the “Voice” of the Project

Elect one person to be the “voice” for the final version of the written assignment. Having everyone write separately is fine for rough drafts, but taking a piecemeal approach to the final product can make it disjointed and confusing. The project comes from multiple authors, but give it one uniform voice in the final draft. Once the elected “voice” has edited together all the content, have them submit it to the group for review. Group members can then make edits or insert ideas to polish the final assignment.

4. Agree on the Tools That You’ll Use to Collaborate

When I began online learning in the “stone age” of 2005, programs like Skype or Google Documents weren’t readily available. I was in a team of 5 students, and in the beginning we would email the same documents over and over to each other. This led to a nightmarish downward spiral, as one of us would lose track of which documents were “current” and we’d waste whole evenings poring over the drafts. Today, many collaborative learning options are available, whether its text or voice or chat via Gmail, conference calling with Skype or TalkShoe, or document-sharing with DropBox,  collaborating online is much easier. Pick and agree on the collaboration and tracking methods before starting.

5. Double-duty: Assign Every Person’s Role on the Project One Backup

During my second group assignment, one of our researchers suddenly couldn’t contribute for at least a week. The reason? He was a soldier stationed overseas, his unit was going on patrol, and he wasn’t certain of when/if he’d be back. All we could do was wish him the best, then frantically find a way to get his tasks done. Every virtual team I’m on since then has someone ready to step in and complete a crucial role if another team member can’t. Some emergency could always sneak up on one of your classmates, so plan ahead.

About the Author:

In addition to pursuing and writing about higher education, David Handlos works as a Lead Software Performance Engineer at Fiserv. He has also worked for Kansas State University as the webmaster, managing both the College of Engineering and Engineering Extension web sites. Handlos holds a Bachelors of Science in Computer Engineering from Kansas State University and a Masters in Information Systems which he earned online from Dakota State University.