Group Projects: Why Students Hate Them, How To Do Them Well, and How to Take Them Online

While discussion forums are generally everybody’s first thought when it comes to peer-to-peer interactions, I thought I’d spend some time this week tackling that bear of instruction known as the group project.  I’ll start of by saying that I’m normally very skittish about designing group project in online as it’s very hard to do well.  With that in mind, the first piece I’ll share is a USNEWS article that summarizes the challenges of this instructional method.  The major complaint being made is that bringing these projects online makes it harder to hold project members accountable as the logistics of coordination and transparency become more difficult.  More importantly, though, is that it’s harder to get people to do their jobs.  As the article states, “it’s easier not to be accountable to someone you never see.”

While all of that seems discouraging at first, I’ll tell you that none of the complaints being listed by the article are different from those made by the 13 year olds I used to teach.  There’s always that one guy who never does his work, and this will be real in a career as it is in a class.  So before we get into the online-specific strategies that can be used to facilitate group assignments, I thought I’d share some simple strategies for facilitating any group project, offline or online.

  1. Keep it small: I would be skittish about more than 4 people to a group. The more humans, the more variables and machines with a lot of moving parts have a tendency to break.
  2. Set Expectations: Group projects fail when faculty assume that students don’t need something explained. With so many moving parts, idiot proofing the assignment isn’t just saving us headaches later; it’s doing right by our students.  When in doubt, put it in writing and rubrics should be mandatory.
  3. Establish Accountability: While self-reviews are likely to produce self-serving results, I’ve found that peer-reviews can be helpful, especially if they’re tied to a grade. You have to make the criteria as specific as possible and require examples but students are more likely to pull their weight if they know their peers are going to call them out.
  4. Start early and chunk it out. I say this about every single summative assignment and I’m never going to stop.  If students are going to submit something in 8 weeks, they need to start on day one and they need clear guideposts for how to move forward.  By breaking projects into chunks and establishing a schedule, it’s easier to hold people accountable.
  5. Create a sample plan and make that the first deliverable: the more structured something is, the more likely people are to follow it. Build a plan for how you would accomplish the project.  Set up an ideal timeline (see suggestion 1) and a list of items that need to be completed to meet it.  Chances are, if they know what it needs to look like, the group members can come up with a way to fill that plan out.

Also, and I’d really like you to look at this, Faculty Focus has a great checklist for evaluating the effectiveness of an online group project and I strongly suggest you read it and share it with your faculty.  Finally, Moodle doesn’t really lend itself to group projects the way blackboard does.  We can build group forums and threads in the shell but the interactivity is missing.  With that in mind we should look elsewhere.  Here are some webtools that can be used to help facilitate group work:

  1. Skype: Scheduling skype conferences are simple, skype is free and skype uses the same hardware students are using to access moodle. Worst case scenario?  They can call into a conference.  This is a great tool for hosting meetings.
  2. GoogleDocs: Students can view the work being created in real time, track access and make edits. Not only can they collaborate, they can hold each other accountable.
  3. Creately: Building charts and diagrams becomes a lot easier and it’s also quite similar to googledocs.
  4. Voicethread: Think Skype, but asynchronous. It allows students to have a conversation but similar to a discussion forum and show things as well.

What do you think?  What has worked for you in the past and what concerns do you have about online group project?  They are tricky, but with the majority of businesses moving to a web 2.0 model and group work being done online at work, I think modeling proper execution in school will help us create a competitive edge for our students.

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