How can learners collaborate more effectively online?
It’s one thing to ask your learners to work together on a group project. But logistics for many online learners are quite another matter. Unlike in a classroom situation, learners have no set time when they expect to all be in the same room together to coordinate. In fact, it is unlikely any of them will ever meet in person.
Fortunately, the technology that enables online education also makes remote work possible. So, while the difficulties learners face in coordinating school projects are similar to those faced by remote workers, the technology industry has been working hard to address these needs and provide cheap, user-friendly solutions.
Some of your learners might have already encountered these tools at work or through their personal life. For those that haven’t, I’ve looked for tools that are free, functional, and user-friendly. The list here is broken down by primary function and ordered according to my preferences. How might you use these tools in your classroom?
Your LMS should come with a forum, and this may be all your learners need to coordinate their project. However, some projects require a more responsive chat function or a greater nuance to organizing topics. In that case, a more specialized group chat application may be in order.
With its slogan “where work happens,” Slack has already established itself in the business world as a powerful tool for coordinating remote teams. I use Slack extensively, and am a huge fan of its simple yet flexible user interface. It’s both easy and free to create Slack groups, and once the team members have all signed up, they can start threads by topic or by task force. It even comes with file-sharing abilities.
For some learners, Slack may be more trouble than it’s worth. WhatsApp provides a lightweight alternative, and it has the added benefit of being more popular internationally. WhatsApp also allows users to create group chats and share small files, but it is a little less organized than Slack in its layout.
The nice thing about forums is that there is hardly a learning curve to using them. Everyone knows what they are and likely at some point has interacted in a forum. When managed properly, forums can add a great deal of value to your learning program.
While Slack and WhatsApp both allow users to send files to each other, they don’t provide a means of organizing those files within the program, nor do they accommodate live editing. If your project requires a significant amount of file sharing, you’ll need something built to purpose.
My first choice here is Google Drive for two reasons: first, the shared folder structure makes it easier for users to add files and know that they’ll be somewhere where everyone can access them. Second, multiple users can write and collaborate in the same document at the same time. They can even highlight and leave comments in different areas of the document or chat with each other as they work.
I use Dropbox, but for a long time I didn’t notice anything about it that might set it apart from Google Drive. In particular, it seemed most useful as an online repository of files and images rather than a place for live editing. However, Dropbox recently released a new tool called Dropbox Paper, and it promises a lot of the useful collaboration tools you’d expect from Google Drive, but with a friendlier interface. I’ve yet to use it myself, but it’s a promising option.
What about coordinating around a calendar or assigning due dates? For complex, multi-stage projects, organizing everything through Slack or Google Drive may be a little complicated. In this case, project management software might be in order.
When it comes to free project management software, Trello is probably the best-known option. With it’s simple, color-coded board layout and easy-to-manage to-do lists, it’s hard to find a more accessible program. I don’t imagine most group projects will need a full-blown project management tool, and those that do probably won’t need anything heavy-duty. After all, most of your learners won’t want to spend hours learning how to learn a tool if they only need to use it for one project a semester.
That said, if your learners do want something with more functionality, Asana might have more to offer. It comes in both free and premium versions, so some of the more powerful features might not be available. Still, it’s worth exploring if Trello doesn’t seem up to task.
Sometimes your team needs a conference call. Fortunately, there are plenty of free options on this front, most of which work well with groups. Many of them offer similar functionality (the most important in this case being group chat and screen sharing), so choosing between them probably comes down to personal preference.
I like Hangouts for the simplicity of its interface. I find it easier to use, and it seamlessly integrates with other Google apps such as Gmail and Google Calendar. If someone doesn’t have a Google account they’ll have to make one, but they would need one to use Google Drive anyway.
join.me caters to a business audience, but it still offers a free version. Like Hangouts, it comes with conference calling and screen sharing. However, it doesn’t require users to create an account to join a call. This might make it less of a hassle for some learners who aren’t interested in learning how to use yet another application.
Most of us are familiar with Skype by now and have been using it for years. This means that most of your learners will already have it downloaded on their computer and may find it most convenient to meet with each other that way. For my part, however, I find the interface annoying, and I’ve noticed an uptick in technical errors in the past couple years. Is it work switching to a new app? Probably not. But if you’re undecided, there are better options available.
How many tools is too many?
As I’ve said a couple time in this article, there is a definite limit to the amount of time you or your learners will want to spend selecting the right tool for their group project. And it certainly isn’t necessary to use all of them. The right tools will depend on the assignment. For instance, if you’ve assigned a group paper, your learners may only need Google Drive. But if you’ve created a semester-long, multi-stage project requiring extensive research and the use of rich media, they’ll probably need more.
You can leave the selection of tool up to your students, or you may want to assign a certain program. For instance, if you want to be able to monitor the progress of the project, it might work best to create Slack channels for each of your groups so that you can be on-hand to moderate any problems that arise.
No matter how you go about it, be sure to communicate with learners ahead of time so that they understand how much collaboration and teamwork they should expect to complete the assignment. The better they understand the scope of the assignment, the more likely they are to choose the right tool to get it done.