Group projects are a fun collaborative way to engage students whether you are teaching face-to-face (F2F) or online. They contribute tremendously to the learning environment and experience of learners and instructors.
Some of the benefits:
1. Student engagement
It’s much more interesting to be in a course if you have to explore and bring back your findings to share with everyone. Students love taking control of their learning and sharing their experience.
2. Creating a community
Group work means students work in a community. Each group member owns the responsibility of the success of their group. It’s in everyone’s interest to work together and make the project successful. It’s amazing to observe a group’s dynamic and see how this mini-society organizes itself. Some groups prefer to assign roles to each group member. Other groups prefer to get all group members to work on the same subject and then compare notes to come up with the best outcome. Some groups elect a group leader. Others share the spotlight and lead together. Each collaborative method reflects a group’s culture and learning style.
3. Active learning
Students become active rather than passive learners. They seek information and seek each other’s involvement which increases the sense of belonging to a project. Active learning keeps the project going – from start to finish.
4. Social skills
Group work enhances social skills by placing students in a situation of support, trust and co-operative learning. The communication and exchange of information and experience increases retention and improves team work and social skills.
5. Building a team
Sharing the workload of a project is a great way to foster team building.
Some skills developed through group project work:
Decision-making, problem-solving, values clarification, communication, critical thinking, negotiation, conflict resolution, teamwork.
So what kind of instructional media can be used for group project work? How can we set it up?
There are quite a few tools out there that will be fantastic. But before we choose one we need to know how to choose. Our choice should be based entirely on what we want to achieve with the group project work. So here’s a few questions to answer before we dive into developing the activity with a particular tool.
1. How many people per group do I want to have?
From my own experience and observation, the optimal number of students per group is 3 to 4. The reason is, it gives students the chance to know each other well in a short period of time. It is also easier for them to contact each other and establish a regular system of communication. It’s quite difficult to coordinate the same times to talk with 7, 8 or 10 people in a group. It much easier when you need to coordinate the schedules of 3 to 4 people. Also, with less people, more tasks get distributed to each person. If there are more people per group, some people may complete their tasks quickly and then go into idle mode waiting for the others. And as all know, idle time equals boredom. You will lose the momentum of engaging students.
2. Timeline of the project
When do I want the group project completed by? It’s important to ask this question because its answer will give you the opportunity to make the tasks fair to the groups. You need to factor in time for the group to “click” together. It is the period of time when the group forms itself into a community. The dynamics of the group are set and everyone has to feel comfortable in their role. If you do not leave enough time for this to happen, you will end up with anxious, frustrated students who blame each other for not completing the group work on time. Therefore, you need to start the group project with some simple to complete tasks which will build trust and work ethic among group members before they fully engage in the project work.
3. Purpose of the group project work
The end result – what is its purpose? Think about what you want your students’ projects should demonstrate. Are they only supposed to create something for your eyes so you can evaluate their work and knowledge. Or are they going to be showcase project that your students will share with other people? Some of my teacher students have created projects that they can refer their own students to. For example the project on copyright is a resource and it is not intended just as a course assignment, but rather as a resource for my students’ students.
4. What is the level of technical skills of my students?
Of course, before we choose an instructional tool, we need to know the answer to this question. If you choose a tool that you think is going to be effective and interesting but your students have not seen it before, you need to factor in the time for them to learn how to use it and get familiar with its functions and principles.
The above questions are just a few things to focus on when deciding on a tool. Of course, the regular factors for using technology must be taken into account too: logistics, costs, etc.
Now that the planning stage is done, lets look at some appropriate tools for group project work.
Of course, Wikis are at the top of the list. What better way to collaboratively work on a virtual portal than a Wiki. I have used Wikis to get small groups to work on creating a resource portal on copyright. So the group members had to research the topic, gather valid information, organize it and enter it into the Wiki according to the needs of their audience. Very effective and powerful tool. Wikis are usually open to view by anyone. The editing permissions can be restricted to specific Wiki members. They can also be locked and made private. Usually in order to make a Wiki private, there is a small cost involved.
Same idea as Wikis except the documents are accessible with a Google account. The documents are not in the public domain and only people with certain permissions can edit them. I have used Google Docs when small group work on a report together or they are reflecting on a discussion or conference between each other. Then they can contribute together to the report on that conference. One advantage of the Google Docs is the fact that the documents are in familiar formats: .doc, .xls, .ppt, etc. However, you don’t necessarily need the MS Office package to create them. You can create them straight in Google and edit them from there without downloading them to your computer. In other words, creating and editing documents happens on the Google Docs cloud.
Live chat tools (Skype, ooVoo, web conferencing, etc.)
These tools are great. I use them every day and my students love them. The fact that you can see and talk to someone across the globe is quite exciting. Especially when used in combination with any of the above tools, these live communication tools can be quite powerful. They do require fast Internet connection so it’s something to talk to your students about. Also, some of them don’t allow video web conferencing with more than 2 people (Skype, unless you pay for premium membership). ooVoo allows such video conferencing and for up to 6 people it is free. I have used live tools as a regular touch-base tools for groups. While the groups work on their project and talk to each other via email or other type of messaging, it’s always good to call each other on ooVoo and talk for a bit about the project. In other words, they can touch base on what they are working on.
These are just a few of the possible tools for group project work. Think of your audience and purpose of the project. Then choose the tool that’s best for you and your learners.
Lou, Y., McGregor, K.S. (2004) Enhancing project-based learning through online between-groups collaboration. Educational Research and Evaluation, 10(4-6), 419-440
Blumenfeld, P.C., Marx, R.W., Soloway, E., Krajcik, J. (1996). Learning with peers: from small group cooperation to collaborative communities. Educational Researcher. 25(8), 37-40