Hands of students completing a cloud-shaped puzzle which reads "Online Collaboration"

Up and Running with Remote Group Work

A Case for Group Work

Group work can elicit negative reactions from instructors and students alike. Often enough, students groan about doing it and instructors dread grading it. The process is ripe for communication breakdowns resulting in stress from both perspectives. On top of this, the digital learning environment tends to compound these issues. Why then is group work so prevalent?

The answer is that, when done well, group activities help foster engagement and build relationships. Collaborative work helps students develop important skills like effectively articulating ideas, active listening, and cooperation with peers. Collaborative assignments correlate strongly with student success positioning them as one of eight high-impact practices identified by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Making group work a worthwhile experience for students requires extra consideration and planning, but the positive gains are worth the effort.

Designing Group Work for Student Success

How can we design collaborative activities that are a quality learning experience for students? Scaffolding makes sure students are confident in their understanding of and ability to execute the activity. UW-Extension has created a helpful guide on facilitating group work that outlines three key suggestions to get you started. First, be sure students understand the purpose of the activity, in terms of what they are supposed to learn from it and why it is a group activity. Second, provide support so students have the necessary tools and training to collaborate. You are clear how and when students are to collaborate or provide suggestions. You ensure students understand how to use the needed technologies. Finally, providing opportunities for peer- and self-evaluation can alleviate frustrations of unequal workload by having students evaluate their own and their peers’ contributions. As challenges arise, guide groups toward solutions that are flexible but fair to all members. When embarking on group projects, be prepared to provide students with guidance about what to do when someone on the team is not meeting the group’s expectations.

One example of this as you design your group projects is to ask yourself whether it’s important students meet synchronously. If so, how might you design the project for students with caregiving responsibilities or with full-time or “off hours” work schedules? These students may not be able to meet as regularly or at the same time as other students. See below for how this might play into assessing the group project. You might also consider whether all students need to hold the same role within the group, or if their collective project be split up based on group roles.

Consider how the group dynamics can impact student experiences. Helping students come up with a plan for group work and methods of holding one another accountable promotes an inclusive and equitable learning environment. Consider any of these tools to help your students coordinate these efforts:

Assessing Group Work

Equitable, specific, and transparent grading are crucial to group-work success. The Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence of Carnegie Mellon University has a great resource on how to assess group work, including samples. This resource breaks grading group work down into three areas. First, assess group work based on both individual and group learning and performance. Include an individual assessment component to motivate all students to contribute and help them to feel their individual efforts are recognized. Also assess the process along with the product. What skills are you hoping students develop by working in groups? Your choice of assessment should point to these skills. One way to meet this need is to have students complete reflective team, peer, or individual evaluations as described above. Finally, outline your assessment criteria and grading scheme upfront. Students should have clear expectations of how you will assess them. Include percentages for team vs. individual components and product vs. process components as they relate to the total project grade.

Tools for Working Collaboratively

Picking the right tool among a plethora of what is available is an important step. First, consider how you would like students to collaborate for the activity. Is it important that students talk or chat synchronously, asynchronously, or both? Will students share files?

The following suggestions include the main collaboration tools supported at UWGB. Click to expand the sections for the various tools below.

If you are interested in learning more about any of these tools, consider scheduling a consultation with a CATL member.

Canvas discussions are one option for student collaboration. Operating much like an online forum, discussions are best suited for asynchronous communication, meaning students can post and reply to messages at any time, in any order. If you have groups set up in Canvas, you can create group discussions in which group members can only see one another’s posts. You can also adjust your course settings so that students can create their own discussion threads as well.

Hypothesis is a Canvas integration that lets instructors and students collaboratively annotate a digital document or website. Hypothesis annotation activities can be completed synchronously, such as over a Zoom call, or asynchronously on students' own time. Activities can be created for either the whole class or for small groups and are a great way for students to bounce around ideas about a text or reading. 

Office 365 refers to the online Microsoft Office Suite, including Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. Students can work collaboratively and asynchronously on projects using online document versions of any of these software, which updates changes in nearly real time. Microsoft Office 365 has partial integration with Canvas, allowing students to set up and share Office documents from within Canvas using the Collaborations feature. Students will have to log in to Office 365 through their Canvas course before they can use most features of Canvas and Office 365 integration.

Zoom is one of two web conferencing tools supported by the university, the other being Teams. The Zoom Canvas integration allows instructors to set up meetings within a Canvas course. Students can then access meeting and recording links from within the Canvas course. As such, it is generally easy to for students to access and use. One downside to Zoom is that it is a purely synchronous meeting tool, so students will have to coordinate their schedules or find other ways of including members that may not be able to attend a live meeting. Students that wish to set up meetings amongst themselves are not able to set up meetings with the Canvas integration, though they can use the Zoom desktop app or web portal and their UWGB account.

Microsoft Teams is a collaboration tool that combines web conferencing, synchronous and asynchronous text communications (in the form of chat and posts), and shared, collaborative file space. Students can create a new team in MS Teams for their group project or operate in a channel of an existing class team. Microsoft Teams also has partial integration with Canvas, meaning students and instructors can create and share Teams meeting links within the Rich Content Editor of Canvas (in pages, announcements, discussions, etc.).

Putting It into Practice

When we ask students to work collaboratively, it’s important we reveal the “hidden curriculum” by building in the steps they should take to be a successful team. As a starting point, asking students to answer these questions helps clarify the work of the group:

  • “Who’s on the team?”
  • “What are your tasks as a group?”
  • “How will you communicate?” (Asynchronously? Synchronously?)
  • “How will you ensure everyone can meet the deadlines you set?”
  • “If or When someone misses a meeting, how will you ensure that everyone has access to the information they’ll need to help you all complete the project on time?”
  • “When will you give each other feedback before you turn in the final assignment?”

For a ‘bare bones’ group assignment, take the above considerations on designing and assessing groupwork into account and create a worksheet for the student groups to fill out together. Create a Canvas group assignment to collect those agreements, assign it some points that will be a part of the whole project grade, and set the deadline for turning it in early so that students establish their plan early enough for it to benefit their group. Scaffolded activities that give students enough structure and agency is a delicate balance, but these kinds of guided worksheets and steps can help students focus their energy on the project, assignment, or task once everyone is on the same page.

Let’s keep the conversation going!

Do you have some tried and tested strategies for helping students coordinate and complete group work online? Send them our way by emailing: CATL@uwgb.edu or comment below!

An Online Core

What is an online core?

An online core is the center around which your course pivots between the face-to-face and distance environment. Even if you are teaching fully online, you are likely bringing a face-to-face course to the online environment. The purpose of the online core is enable all your learners to achieve full course citizenship regardless of how they are able to participate. There are three elements to the core: communication, content, and assessments.

Communication refers to the ways in which your learners will connect with you and with their fellow students.

Content is the “what” your class is trying to teach. It includes the ideas, skills, and knowledge your course is trying to convey to learners. Content also implies a medium: readings, videos, podcasts, etc.

Assessments refer to the summative – high-stakes, graded – and formative – lower stakes, informal – ways that you will know that students have achieved their learning outcomes.

At the core of the online core

Equivalence is central to the online core. With a course’s essential statement and objectives/learning outcomes in mind, all students should have an equivalent experience. For example, watching a lecture online that other students experienced face-to-face is an equivalent experience if you also build in a way for the online students to ask questions, get clarification, and interact with activities that the face-to-face students experienced, such as a think-pair-share. A core is about building citizenship in your class for all students. While not all students will access your course in the same way, they should have the ability to participate fully. Having multiple means for representing key course concepts means that students who aren’t able to attend or have poor internet connectivity will be able to have at least one way to access course content that is workable for them. From an instructor’s point of view, having multiple means to access content shifts the relationship with the student. Where before the student unable to attend may have seemed like an obstacle to surmount or a problem to solve, now they have become a full member of the class.

This seems really overwhelming… how can I make this manageable?

It is true that adding multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement to all course elements is a daunting (and probably foolish) task. Rather than tackling everything in your course, we recommend that you adopt a “plus-1” approach. Coined by Thomas Tobin and Kirsten Behling, the plus-1 approach encourages instructors to think of the “pinch points” or elements that will disproportionately inhibit the experience of learners in a course. Then add another means of representation, expression, or engagement to shore up those pinch points.

During this continued time of COVID and related precautions, we encourage you to adapt the plus-1 approach to think about all the learning environments your course will serve (face-to-face, mask-to-mask, online, synchronous online, etc.) and look for places where universal design can alleviate the sting of your pinch points.

For example, what would happen if students could not attend a synchronous online session? Perhaps you could add in a way for students to download and watch your video (multiple means of representation) and participate in the class discussion through Canvas (engagement).

How do I add a “plus-1” element?

One way to answer this question is to go to the National Center for Universal Design website which has examples for how to meet the benchmarks for representationexpression, and engagement. These can be useful in brainstorming ways that will work in your class to add universal design elements.

Another way to answer this question is to ask your colleagues and CATL for recommendations.

Types of cores

Not all cores will be the same. At one end of the spectrum will be courses where a face-to-face element is central to the experience of the class. First-year experience classes try to introduce students to the campus itself. Lab courses rely on manipulating specialized equipment. Ensembles build their sound on the blending of voices or instruments. The core for these courses will consider how to make the best use of the physically distant face-to-face environment; how to do as much work online to maximize the face-to-face time; and how to pivot online should we experience another shutdown like last Spring.

At the other end of the spectrum are those classes which do not necessarily require face-to-face interaction. For these classes, it will be important to move the course’s center of gravity to the online environment.

Many courses will fall somewhere in the middle between these two poles. Regardless of the listing in the schedule of classes, building your content, communication, and assessments online will give you maximum flexibility to deal with whatever comes our way this fall.