Preparing online teams for success

Preparing online teams for success

I’ve been asked to talk a little more about how I help prepare teams for success in my online courses. Fortunately, I’m not the only one writing about this. A recent article in Inside Higher Ed by Zahir Latheef (January 13, 2021) Avoiding the Goans, Signs, and Eye Rolls provides some tips on how to prepare students for online group work. I figured I’d start there as a jumping off point and a few of my strategies.

I should note that my students are graduate students and they are educators, so as much as they hate group work they like to talk and they like to share their learning, so it is often not difficult to get them to build trust relatively quickly.

I assign the following readings: Roberts, T. S., & McInnerney, J. M. (2007). Seven problems of online group learning (and their solutions). Educational Technology & Society, 10(4), 257-268. 

This reading helps students understand why the group assignments are structured the way they are. It also gives them language to help have meaningful conversations with each other about group work.

I also try to assign a reading about leaving one’s ego at the door. I don’t have a specific one that I recommend, just that I think it is a concept that is important for people to hear so that they are entering the teamwork space with the right mindset. I’ve had students comment to me that it hadn’t occurred to them that ego was part of what was making them not great teammates.

I also mention my blog post about what online groups could learn from sociocracy. The biggest think I think they can learn is to take turns talking and making sure that everyone feels heard.

I assign the groups. I usually do a survey which is different for each class I teach. I make sure that the groups I assign have some time overlap – that is, that they are all available to do group work at the same time. Finding the times that work is a huge challenge for students who are often working full time, as most of my students are, so starting the group off knowing that they will find a time jumpstarts them to success. I let them know the group assignments a week before the scheduled group sync session.

I setup the first group meeting to happen during a regularly schedule sync session. My courses only do a maximum of one sync session a week (for one hour). Some weeks we don’t meet. The majority of my courses happen asynchronously (truly anytime-anywhere). However, to kick start group work, I allow for the first group meeting during “class time”. I tell students they can use that time to complete their first assignment, but at a minimum they need to decide when and how they will meet next. I also set this up as an “open ended” session. That is, I setup the breakout rooms and let them stay open as long as students want – we don’t return to class. Some groups stay on for 2-3 hours, others for 5-10 minutes. Either way, it gives them that first point of contact.

The first assignment is a group agreement. Latheef mentions this in the Inside Higher Ed article. A couple of the questions I’ve added to my list of requirements is: list your strengths and areas where you want to learn more. This helps students know where they can learn from one another. I will often have a student who has excellent video skills and others that want to learn, this helps them figure out who the experts are. Here are the prompts I use for the team agreement:

  • At least one area of strength for each team member (e.g. Rebecca is good at PowerPoint).
  • At least one area where each person would like to improve (e.g. Rebecca would like to improve her video editing skills).
  • What are the different roles each of you will perform in creating your group presentation? (e.g. who will take notes at meetings, who will initiate meetings, who will send out reminders, who will submit the assignments, who will do which parts of the presentation). Note that this may change as you work through your project, but it is good to start with specific guidelines
  • How often will you meet? When? – Be specific and put it in your calendar
  • What tools will you use to communicate? (share necessary communication information such as email address or other contact info)
  • How quickly should group members be expected to respond to emails or other communication?
  • How will you make sure everyone in the group feels like their ideas are being heard?
  • How will you deal with potential conflict? (do not overthink this, but also do not say ‘refer to the instructor’, rather talk over how you will initially deal with misunderstandings, also how will you do deal when someone is not participating?)
  • What other guidelines do you have for working together (e.g. we will always assume good intentions).

I introduce collaboration tools as a low stakes activity. In conjunction with the lesson on teamwork itself, I also have students evaluate collaboration tools. This is a low-stakes activity where each team needs to evaluate one tool per person (so each member writes up a discussion post reviewing the likes/dislikes of a tool). The idea is that the team evaluates the various tools together. It is low stakes because it only counts towards participation points, and each learner gets their own points, so it isn’t graded as a team – and yet it gives the team a ‘warm up’ activity to help them figure out how they work together.

I do a self and peer review. The final assignment in the team project is a self and peer review. I have students describe their contributions to the team, and have them rate both themselves on a scale of 1 to 5 and each of their teammates on a variety of characteristics, for example:

  1. Respect for group members’ opinions
  2. Contributions to the group project
  3. Completion of assigned tasks
  4. Quality of work
  5. Timeliness of work
  6. Your desire to work with this person again
  7. Overall, how well did this person work with the rest of the group?

I mostly use this information to provide feedback to students who are not performing well as group members. Since most of the groups in my classes are high performing, I rarely have negative comments here, but if someone is slacking off, this is where I find out.

I make sure the group project is substantial. I try to avoid small group projects. I try to make sure they are substantial enough that one person doesn’t feel like they could do it all themselves. Where possible I ensure that each member of the group must provide their opinion. For example, when evaluating an instructional design model, I include a requirement that the presentation must include the opinion of each team member.

I’ve been teaching online for more than five years and most of my courses involve a significant teamwork project. In my course on the Design and Instruction of Online Courses course, I highlight to my students that most students have never been taught how to work in an online team. They may have learned how to work in face-to-face team during their K-12 education, but rarely have they been shown how to work online. As a result, as instructors we need to design scaffolds to help them learner how to have a good online group work experience.

What scaffolds do you provide to help your students have successful online group work experiences?

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