Group Projects: Online Collaboration Keeps Students Working

Online technologies allow for asynchronous, delocalized collaboration. This not only means your students can avoid those awkward group meetings where one person never shows up, but it also means that you can have direct evidence of which students are contributing the group’s efforts.

Before setting up a group project, I strongly recommend first using Discussion Boards and In-Class Online Activities in order to foster ongoing interactions between your students. Students can then use those tools in order to plan how they’ll work on their projects and then conduct their collaborations.

Since blog posts discussing the other tools are focused on student interaction, this blog post will focus on which tools students can use in order to submit a finished project. Note, however, that “finished” is a relative term – in general, every project is completed in stages, and our role as instructors is to evaluate how students are bringing together the various stages of research, planning, writing, revising, and then describing what they’ve done. Unlike a single “final document,” an online tool can offer a single place for students to share every step of their projects both among themselves and with you the instructor.

ReggieNet Discussions and Discussion Forums
Yes, you can do almost anything with ReggieNet. For a group project, though, it’s difficult for students to submit a “final” project as a group because only one student can upload and edit a particular document, and each discussion post is credited to single student. However, this isn’t a bad thing – you can use this shortcoming as an impetus for your students to more explicitly describe how they’re organizing and sharing their work. If you provide each group with a discussion topic, then you can ask each group to create a new topic for uploading their finished documents. This, also, can foster good working habits, since students will need to provide a description in the discussion post regarding what the document includes. Then, individual students can submit individual components of a group project, and then use the discussion posts to specific which documents go in which order. Optionally, you could ask each group to have a designated “collector” – someone who goes through all the finished documents and copies the material into a single document. Note, however, that the real benefit of all this is that the discussion itself becomes the project, and the document posted at the end only represents the official record of those discussions. (Just make sure to tell your students this…otherwise they may be tempted to wait until the very end and then throw together a long and poorly-though-out document, thinking that the production of the document alone is the important part.)

ReggieNet Clogs
In ReggieNet, a “Clog” is a “Collaborative Blog.” Although I have not had an opportunity to try this technology, it appears to offer many of the same benefits of Blogger and WordPress, with the advantage that students won’t need to open another online account.

Blogger and WordPress
In today’s information age, creating a website forces students to consider how their work will look in the “real world.” Blogs are helpful because they’re easier to create than traditional websites and the chronological nature of the posting allows students to post a record of their progress. Additionally, since each student sets up an individual account on the blog, you can also see which students are posting specific posts, but students can typically assign each other admin privileges so that students can go ahead and proofread the posts by their classmates. The downside, of course, is that blogs can be difficult for some students to learn. I recommend starting slow – start by assigning a single post, and then gradually ask students to post more material.

The major advantage of GoogleDocs is that multiple students can edit a single document, and then they can share with you the link to that “live” document as they’re working on it. From a collaboration perspective, this is great – they can ask you questions as their working, or even sent you a quick e-mail, and then you can even post comments inside their document. This is also good for “final” drafts, too, since everyone can contribute to the whole – in a real sense, GoogleDocs offers the most genuine collaborative experience. The downside, though, is that you don’t explicitly know who wrote what. Before you conduct assessment, I recommend having students also submit individual documents describing their own contributions to the larger project. Additionally, you can have students conduct peer assessment sessions to let each other know how each member of the group performed – this way, you’ll be able to correlate the final product with the collaborative effort as you mark your grades.

Facebook isn’t exactly a “document-based” system, and so it’s harder to have students use Facebook as the final “product” of a work. However, if you are studying social media as a genre, you can have each group put together Facebook fan page, and then the posts that they make to the fan page would constitute the genre product. Also, if you’d like to get a better idea of how your students coordinated their work, giving them space on Facebook will likely lead them to produce online discussions that you can take a look at afterward to better gauge their coordination. However, I must caution you – unless you specifically include Facebook as part of assessment, groups that meet in-person or who collaborate via e-mail won’t really use Facebook much.