Facilitating online group work: Reflection

Having been part of a group required to complete a task online over a week, it was interesting to view the process of a group task from a students’ perspective. Some reflective points are considered along with thoughts for how to facilitate group work with my own students in the future.

This week on the MSc Supporting Virtual Communities module, we were required in our group of six to conceive a group activity and write a tutor support guide for facilitating this activity online. The activity, conveniently enough, consisted of six tasks, which led to pretty equal division. This divide and conquer method suited me and with reasonable efficiency and the odd hiccup, we compiled a document which resembled something like the assignment asked us to do.

When we give our own students group presentations to do, I am disappointed in cases where a group break a presentation into three parts, each member take a bit to work on and then marry it together at the end just before the presentation, the glue of the uniform theme of Powerpoint still wet. It looks like three pieces and it sounds like three pieces – with little internal reference to each other, and possibly in the worst cases little knowledge of each others’ contribution. But having completed an assignment in this way in our own group, I can see how easily it is done. The cycle of the group work is incomplete. No one can doubt that dividing tasks and independent work are important, but to complete the cycle these constituent parts must be made a whole. It’s uncomfortable, teasing out the bits needed and not needed – it needs some diplomacy and a lot of give and take. But it also needs for students to be aware of this component in the cycle of group work, or they may not realise that they are not getting the best out of each other as a group.

Summing together each group member's contribution does not result in a final "group" project.

Moving this online is potentially more troublesome. The nuances of face-to-face conversation are not available, and so subtle diplomacy and give and take can be misinterpreted. One mechanism we had in place as a group was a group contract – with each person given a role. I think in our own case, the activity was just too short for these roles to garner real impact, but it is a tool in the scaffolding of group work – assigning a responsibility to each member. Another tool we used in the group contract was incorporation of deadlines for submission of material, and what to do if someone didn’t submit. this means the show can go on if one member of the group can’t contribute to a specific sub-task. We also used a one-hour chat session, which was very useful at the beginning of the task to ensure everyone was on the same page as regards what to do. The failing of the group, was that we did not return to this group chat towards the end of activity to begin the review cycle. Finally, in our scenario, we were lightly moderated, and rightly so – as we all have experience in group work. But based on our own situation, people inexperienced in group work would need a lot of early moderation and feedback to ensure that they were aware of their roles and responsibilities. Hopefully, as a module of activities proceeded, this moderation could be less invasive.

In terms of technology, we used Google Wave as our interface. I loved it in terms of technology and ease. Others had difficulty with their being too many waves – and while there were a lot, I didn’t feel that was a problem. I suppose my main outcome from it was that the end result didn’t feel “concrete”. There wasn’t a document you could print off – it essentially just ran on from a discussion. I think the way data is presented is important (I can’t read academic papers in html format, I go for the formatted pdf). Of course the final stage of a Google Wave development could (and probably would) take the fully edited document with everyone’s contributions incorporated – as in a wiki – and put it into something like a Google document or Word. But as it was it felt transient and almost insignificant. Part of the problem is that it is so easy for a Wave to get polluted with side chat and irrelevant information, which while valuable in one space can affect the flow of a document. Therefore it might be useful to put in some comments in a group agreement if using Wave in the future.

The above comments are really some random thoughts on my experience for the week. Some of the online moderating supports are taken from Salmon’s E-moderating (2004), but the biggest learning experience of the week for me was that I really need to brush up on my knowledge of facilitating group work. I’ll be getting Jaques out on my next visit to the library.