How to Run Effective Group Projects in Online Education

Group projects help prepare learners for the real work environments, but they’re hard to organize.

Learners and employers alike share a significant concern with regard to many education programs: their lack of training for real-life work scenarios. Many learners sign up for online education to build their professional expertise in a field and gain marketable skills. But programs can often be long on theory and short on practical application.

This is where group projects can provide an invaluable benefit to an online course. While they sometimes feel like more trouble than they’re worth, they do a better job simulating real work experiences than most classroom assignments. And with an online course, learners have the chance to learn how to coordinate a team project in a distributed work environment—an increasingly necessary skill in today’s work culture.

While many learners might be eager to show off a good grade, employers are just as interested in evidence of well-developed soft skills. Group projects not only give learners a feel for what collaborative projects feel like in a potential office setting, they also help build experience with project management and expose learners to differing perspectives.

However, organizing a successful group project in a traditional classroom is hard enough. Online, these problems are compounded by distance, shifting schedules, and lack of face-to-face communication. Here’s a few tips for helping educators create effective group projects that have a positive impact on learners.

Prepare to combat social loafing.

The biggest problems with group projects boil down to trust and accountability. Many students dislike being graded on anything but their own performance. Unfortunately, their mistrust of their fellow students has a strong foundation the social loafing phenomenon. This happens when an individual’s output declines measurably once they join a group, presumably because they expect their team mates to pick up their slack.

One way to mitigate this effect is to avoid assigning a group grade. If each learner knows they will earn an individual grade on the group project, they will be less likely to underperform. It will also prevent high-performing learners from falling prey to the sucker effect (which is when a student who feels they are over-contributing decides to throw the project rather than make up for everyone else).

However, to assess individual roles, there will need to be transparency in the project itself. For instance, groups could discuss their project in a forum on the LMS where their instructors can monitor who is taking part in the project and what roles each learner has taken on. Or, learners can submit a project plan detailing which member is responsible for what roles.

This structure has the added benefit of mimicking real-world interactions among employees, where co-workers have incentives to perform well and their peers can discuss situations with their managers if any problems arise.

Make it meaningful.

No project—collaborative or otherwise—should be without purpose. Pointless busywork is disheartening for everyone involved.

For group assignments, the project should require group collaboration to be successful. If an individual could complete the assignment on their own without needing to work as part of a team, it is likely to be more frustrating than useful, and it is more likely to lead to social loafing.

A more meaningful group project design might require learners to write a joint paper, but with each learner responsible for a different section and covering a separate aspect of the subject matter. Learners could coordinate subject matter with each other and share findings, but would still be responsible for their written segment. Similarly, learners could be assigned a complex or controversial topic, and each be required to debate a different point of view.

Or, a project might be complex enough to require learners to take on different roles. One might conduct background research and interview sources, another might provide a written component, while a third organizes a presentation to share findings with the class.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous communication.

Unlike the usual classroom experience, where learners meet their peers face-to-face, many online classmates never meet in person. In fact, they’re potentially miles apart, in different time zones or even different countries. Online classrooms can be exciting in their ability to build communities across broad distances, but when learners on completely different schedules have to work together to complete a project, the distance can be a complicating factor.

In particular, this distance can isolate members whose schedule doesn’t seem to line up with the rest of the group. If two or three team members all happen to be online at the same time discussing the project in a forum, they can make a lot of decisions without any input from the last member of their team.

So, while asynchronous communication tools (such as email or community forums) can provide flexibility for members to respond when it is most convenient for them, synchronous communication (live chat, video conferencing) helps groups stay on the same page. It may help to encourage your learners to schedule a few meetings to coordinate at key points in their project rather than rely wholly on discussion threads.

Smaller groups also facilitate communication, especially if team members are on varying schedules. The larger the group, the harder it is to coordinate and the easier it is for the workload to be distributed unevenly. Three to four learners to a group is usually a comfortable and manageable course size, while five should be an absolute maximum.

A good group project builds community.

Group projects, when designed and managed well, can provide an incredible benefit to learners. But they also make the entire eLearning experience more positive, which encourages learners to come back for more.

Online education often suffers from isolation, and learners often complain of missing the interaction with peers that happens in a regular classroom. With a good group, however, learners have the chance to connect with others in their course, be part of a team, and learn something from a new perspective.

That’s an experience worth sharing.

Author

Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She speaks Russian and German and holds a double MA (Hons) in History and Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

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