Collaboration Among Online Learners (Part 1)

Another semester down and, for many of us, a new one has already begun. Looking through the syllabus of a new class for the first time and, there it is, listed among the assignments – a group project. What’s your first impression? Is it excitement, dread, or the cold sweat induced by sheer panic?

I’ve had a long line of great online collaborative learning experiences, so I usually look forward to group work with eager anticipation. From what I have heard, however, I should not have been shocked when my good fortune finally came to an end in the second half of last semester. That’s when the tables turned and I was the one struggling through a group project.

After all of my previous positive learning experiences and my lengthy tenure working in the business world where teamwork is a frequent requirement, I found myself repeatedly asking why. Why was I so frustrated? Why was I spending so much time trying to negotiate the group dynamic and so little time on the actual project? Why wasn’t anything going as we had initially planned? What was I doing wrong or different this time? With hindsight, perhaps it would have been more productive for me to ask which strategies, when agreed upon by the group and practiced by each member, help to create and sustain a cooperative and engaging group learning experience.

So, what follows here is the first of a two-part blog post where I share what I have come up with so far…

Part One – Get Off to a Great Start!

  1. Put group work first. With all the competing priorities, being an adult learner is already a challenge. Introduce group work and suddenly there is an entirely new set of schedules to consider. Try to remember that the other team members are your partners and that the success of the group depends upon each member meeting established expectations and deadlines. As a responsible team member, the last thing I want to do is delay our progress or negatively impact our grade. Therefore, when I have a group project, I try to make that work a priority.
  2. Be as flexible as possible. With group members in different time zones and every time slot already full on my calendar, it is easy to understand why synchronous group meetings can be difficult to arrange and conduct. For instance, I received a notification e-mail one afternoon for a proposed meeting that evening. My night was already full and I found myself feeling frustrated about having so little warning. In the end, though, I worked my schedule around the meeting and I was able to attend. Had I not done so, I would have missed the opportunity to participate in the critical planning stage of our project. Remember, no matter where they are or what they are doing, your partners are probably just as busy as you are. Try to meet them in the middle whenever possible.
  3. Follow the Golden Rule.  As one part of a larger – and mostly unseen – group, it is easy to imagine that your partners are very similar to you, but that is an unrealistic and unfair expectation. A team may be composed of a soldier, a stay-at-home or new mom, a working professional, or a student in another country. One of my recent teams had a member in another country. Not only was she in a very different time zone and culture, but English was not her first language and she was unfamiliar with the distance learning methods and technologies that the rest of us had already come to know well.At first, I was impatient with her constant inquiries about where to find basic resources in the course and frustrated by her lack of participation. Then, I tried to put myself in her shoes. It wasn’t that she was unwilling to contribute; she was just lost in the technology. This hurdle was easily overcome by taking some extra time to help her navigate the course. Initially, I was far too willing to sacrifice her valuable insight and the global perspective that she contributed to our discussions. No matter whom your partners are or what their circumstances may be, try to keep an open  mind and treat them with the same respect and regard with which you want to be treated…and maybe more.
  4. Identify individual strengths and don’t be afraid to ask for help. One of the advantages to working in a group is the support and guidance that can be found in your partners. Take some time and get to know them. Identify the experiences and strengths of each group member up front and use them to the group’s advantage. If one group member is well-versed in research methodology or statistics or APA formatting, then rely on them to lead the group in that area. And, if you are unsure about the contributions that you are making or the direction of the project, don’t hesitate to raise your questions to the group. It is better to ask for clarification or raise a concern than to allow any segment of the project to move forward on shaky ground.

In summary, collaboration among online learners calls for a commitment to devoting ample time, staying flexible, maintaining a positive attitude, and making the group learning experience a priority. As community takes on an increasingly global perspective, the skills that we develop and polish while negotiating online group projects will prove invaluable in future endeavors.

I hope that building these strategies into your existing approach will help to get your next group project off to a great start! Stay tuned next week for Part Two – Working Well Together when I’ll talk about sustaining that great start.