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Online Group Work and its Role in Student Learning

Does learning in groups or online collaborative learning actually benefit students in online courses? Not really, suggests an article in the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching (JOLT). The good news is, it doesn’t harm student learning, either.

“Learning Outcomes Associated with Group Assignments,” a paper published in the Fall 2011 issue of JOLT by three professors at the University of Missouri/Kansas City, summarizes the findings from a nursing course, in which of the 54 eligible study participants, 57 percent completed the study of group projects.

Healthcare is distinguished from other academic paths in the report, in that successful patient outcomes often rely on the ability of treatment teams to work together and communicate effectively in order to negotiate and “collaborate towards a unified goal.”

The researchers referred to a 1991 report that cited 600 studies showing students learned better in groups, but the paper notes that previous literature stopped short of finding any research that assessed specifically the impact of group for students on learning and knowledge “when content is taught in an online format.”

Online learning, which “requires active engagement, participation, and self-direction to complete the required assignments,” as the study notes, does not appear to be hampered by by online group work, as the 23 participating students – who all passed the course – showed.

Students were not given an incentive to work either as a group or individually, and 70 percent (16) of the respondents chose to participate in the online group work, while 30 percent (7) students opted to work alone.

Those who went solo mainly identified work conflicts, like night or weekend shifts, that would make coordinating hard.  The final project involved developing a multi-part Powerpoint presentation explaining the a particular nursing theory and the history and thinking behind it.

“Results from this study indicate that course assignments may be completed using a group work teaching method, without impacting learning outcomes,” wrote the authors.

For more information on this study, check out the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol.7, No.3, Sept. 2011 paper by Schmer, Ward-Smith, and Peterson.

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