Many years ago, when I undertook my teaching qualification, I incorporated group work into my lesson planning. Discussion and dialogue were central to teaching English but the students in my all boys’ secondary school were generally reluctant to air their views on Langston Hughes or Robert Frost in front of peers. Equally, they struggled to grasp concepts or ideas in isolation.
Group work felt a natural solution to this problem, ensuring that the boys identified, discussed and presented themes in smaller and more personal settings. I still contended with reluctant participants but it did elicit the dialogue that English teachers wish to generate when coming to grips with a new text. I also believed that group work created a more cohesive and collaborative environment: if they were going to suffer by getting up in front of the class and presenting to peers, at least they suffered in solidarity. They had to work together to ensure that they met the brief.
All of this leads me to say that as much as I loved using group work as a teacher, I’ve not yet met a person who will admit to liking group work. This includes myself. I think there is a natural inclination to panic at the thought that your success or failure will be, to a certain extent, out of your hands and reliant on the actions of others.
I believe this is a particularly difficult adjustment for online learners. As Palloff (2003) has stated, successful online learners tend to display high levels of self-efficacy along with an appreciation for the ability to learn flexibly and autonomously. Group work represents the antithesis to all of this; dependence on others is essential and autonomy is impossible.
In SBOSE this term, I worked as part of a group of four to deliver an online unit on supporting the online learner to our peers. Working with my fellow group members was a rewarding experience. We all contributed to the assignment and our different strengths became an asset. I left the project, as stressful as it was, with a sense of being valued by my peers and valuing the part they played in turn.
Still, the problems that arise in group work are difficult to ignore. Key issues include barriers to collaboration, the differing degrees of commitment and contribution of group members as well as issues around group leadership. Conflict between different personalities or approaches can be detrimental. However, this is all part of the process, as we are to understand it: after all, collaboration and the ability to navigate conflict doesn’t end when we leave the classroom. We contend with these issues in the workplace.
In their study of group work in an online environment, Chang and Kang (2016) include these more commonplace group work issues along with factors that are exacerbated in the online environment, including problems with communication and coordination and, more specifically, around the best way to create touchpoints online and asynchronously. Although I feel that our group navigated these issues well, through a series of synchronous meetings and interim communication through Teams, I suspect other online learners have found these aspects of online group work particularly challenging. Online learners are often balancing a host of other commitments which is why they’ve chosen the online environment (Palloff, 2003). Clashing diaries are only one such issue we faced in our group.
Part of the success of the group project is the ability of the instructor to create a project that would be impossible or difficult to reasonably complete alone. This reflects an approach in the wider world of work where collaboration creates recognisable improvements when working towards a specific goal as a team (Haythornthwaite 2006). Group work should not exist for its own sake but as a method that is better than what could otherwise be used as an assessment tool based on the learning outcomes. Our instructors’ assessment rubric clearly stated that our ability to work as a group was as much a part of our grade as the output.
The inclusion of peer review in our final marks mitigated against some of the negative feelings around group work whereby you feel your individual contributions are not recognised and where other members’ lack of commitment can be detrimental to your output. Careful implementation of peer review by instructors can also encourage shy or reluctant participants to demonstrate their individual skills in the process (Chang and Kang 2016).
At my institute, group work has not featured in student assessment, either formative or summative. As a regulated body, we have limited scope in changing our summative assessments in the short term. We are, however, in the midst of reconsidering how we deliver our qualification, including how to improve student social presence and cohesion.
Students on our programme come to us from a variety of organisations. There are clear disadvantages to those students who come from smaller firms where they may be the only trainee versus larger organisations that send whole cohorts of trainees. Students from the larger firms come to class already knowing each other. and tend to mix amongst themselves. This leaves single trainees ‘alone in the cafeteria.’
The isolation single trainees face has been even more significant in lockdown. Working as part of a group could not only bolster collaborative skills that are essential in the workplace; it could also allay the feeling of isolation of these students and break down cliques. Situations where students are forced to work together can be uncomfortable initially, but, in many ways, they create more natural springboards for social cohesion in the classroom, much like the solidary I tried to foster with my secondary school students. Students who struggle to strike up conversation with peers are handed an opportunity to converse out of necessity and with a loose script.
Group work – both as a student and on a personal level – represents disruption of my safe bubble of quietly and individually plugging away on my assignments. On the other hand, it has allowed me to socialise with my peers and to learn more about who they are as well as what strengths they bring to the table. It also allows me to reflect on my own way of working within a group. It may not be a wholly welcome disruption but it has been a positive experience.
Chang, B., & Kang, H. (2016). Challenges facing group work online. Distance Education, 37(1), 73-88.
Haythornthwaite, C. (2006). Facilitating collaboration in online learning. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 10(1), 7-24.
Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2003). The virtual student: A profile and guide to working with online learners. John Wiley & Sons.