January 2016

Addressing Group Work Challenges in Online Courses


I am currently teaching an online course for the MET Program at UBC titled Technology in Mathematics and Science Classroom. I have taught this course many times before (at least four times). And even after all these years, I have to admit that it is a challenge teaching online. For example, from my estimates, it takes me at least 20 hours a week to teach it, while a regular course would take much-much less. I know, maybe I am spending too much time an it is a mistake, but if I do something, I want to do it the best I can. I cannot do things half-way. So why do I do it? The answer it – because I love this course. I love teaching this course as I learn a lot from it. My students in the course (experience educators from all over the world) create amazing projects that offer me many opportunities to learn. For example, here are the projects from the January-April 2016 ETEC 533 course:

Group 1: Investigating learning: Scientific study of math and science teaching and learning

Group 2: Acquiring expertise in math and science: From novices to experts

Group 3: Helping students acquire the ability to transfer knowledge within a subject, across subjects and from the classroom to everyday life.

Group 4: Exploring the process of learning math and science: From children to adults

Group 5: Designing learning environments for math and science learning

Group 6: Exploring effective math and science teaching

Group 7: Exploring math and science teacher education

Group 8: Designing technology-enhanced learning environments to support math and science teaching and learning

At the same time the course offers me new challenges every time I teach it. This year a particular challenge was making sure that all group members participate effectively in a group project. How can I assure in a fully online course that ALL team members contribute to the project. This is a challenge in a Face-to-Face course as well but in an online course this challenge becomes even larger. So here how I am trying to address it:

  1. I establish continuous communication with the students creating an environment where they feel confident to communicate with me and let me know about their challenges. This applies to all course challenges, including the group challenge.
  2. All the students know that while group projects are group projects, they will receive individual marks that will reflect their project contributions. So not everybody will get the same mark at the end of the project.
  3. To make sure the individual mark reflect their individual contribution I ask the students to fill out the peer evaluation where they rate their own and their peers’ contributions and justify their ratings.
  4. When the projects are short (a week or two), this peer evaluation will happen at the end of the project. But in longer projects multiple evaluations will take place during the project.
  5. Students should feel ownership of their group projects and they have to have an opportunity to share it with peers outside of their groups. So all the projects in my courses are shared with the course members and with the larger community. The projects are not done for the sake of the course, but in order to improve our teaching and student learning.
  6. Part of the course assignments is to reflect on the projects of other class members by providing constructive feedback. (This is a course assignment!)

However, even with that, I know sometimes group experiences are not the experiences I would like my students to have. This is THE CHALLENGE of the online course – to make sure collaboration happens effectively and efficiently.┬áIf you have better or other ideas to address the group challenge, I would love to hear from you. And these are some of the resources I have found online:

I would like to finish on a positive note. I just found out this quote and I think it is appropriate here: If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you. I hope these challenges will change me and my students and I hope the changes will be for the best.

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