Group Projects in Online Classes

This is the last of three blog posts on the online class “Introduction to Human Rights.” I have talked about general course design (here) and assessment (here). Today, I will focus on group projects and the specific challenges as well as opportunities that the online environment provides for them.

Students usually do not like group projects. I don’t blame them; I didn’t like them much either when I was a student. I was always convinced that I could have done better and could have worked more efficiently by myself. As an instructor, however, I see benefits in group projects that go beyond a good grade and efficiency; benefits that relate to future jobs in which most of our students will have to collaborate, but also more social skills of negotiation and compromise that will help in all sorts of situations.

Students are even more concerned about online group projects. They assume that all the problems they encounter in the face-to-face class will be multiplied in an online class: figuring out times to meet, communicating goals, submitting parts of the presentation, merging parts into a coherent whole seem more daunting when you have never met your collaborators in person. Here is the good news though: it is not! I have actually found that group projects work better online. I assume that some of the reasons are that the students are already used to working asynchronously and logging on multiple times a day. They are more responsive to emails and have learned to communicate in discussion forums and to submit assignments online. All these skills are needed for successful group projects without the face-to-face problem of finding a time and space to meet in person.

The biggest challenge for online group work, I have found, is to establish clear guidelines as well as due dates for each step of the way. It won’t work to give a group the assignment and expect them to submit the completed project after a week or two. Therefore, I broke down the projects in multiple steps and supported the process with three tools – a discussion forum for asynchronous communication, a chat area for synchronous conversations, and a document exchange for sending documents for revisions back and forth (all available through blackboard).

The projects focused on a specific group of people and their rights: rights of disabled people, rights of children, LGBTQ rights, indigenous rights, rights of migrants and refugees. Students sent me their topic preference (indicating and ranking their top three choices) in the second week of class, and I formed the groups according to interest. The first step in the groups was then to assign roles. Reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of the class, I asked them to include the history of the rights of their group (including an international convention if it exists), legal cases/proceedings, and cultural representations of the (rights of the) group. Since I had groups of five students, students could not just pick one area, but had to collaborate within those subject fields. Most groups split the history part and assigned one student to merge the different parts in the end. Others split multiple of the parts. They communicated their roles to me by the middle of the third week of class and began their research. During the fourth week, the groups submitted a draft of their presentation. This required collaboration in the form of bringing the different parts together and held each group member accountable to do research for their own part. I gave feedback, based on which the students finalized their prezi or power point presentations. These were due at the beginning of the fifth week. After another round of feedback, the students then added their narration to the visuals. Both power point and prezi have the option to upload recordings which enables the students to record their own part and then add it to the appropriate visuals. This corresponds to an in-class presentation where each student would be speaking about their specific part. Here, they pre-script their narration, record and upload it. Some groups opted to have one students do the narration for all parts. Based on this experience, I would advise against that. This student would not have done research for any of the parts and might not be able to capture all nuances. The presentations of those who split the work into parts and each student did the research, found the visuals and narrated their own part proved to be more in depth and more engaging at the same time. The narrated version of the presentation was due at the end of the fifth week. During the sixth week, everyone watched all the group presentations and asked questions in a discussion forum. The groups had to check into their own presentations to answer these questions and possibly do some more research to be able to answer them.

As I discussed in the blog post on designing the online course, the group projects allowed me to include more groups of people and their specific rights. While I gave up some control about what students would find and communicate to the others, the benefit of not having to choose only one or two groups of people outweighs this challenge. I confronted the challenge also during the multiple rounds of feedback, steering the groups into a certain direction when they seemed to be missing major points. The LGBTQ rights group in 2014 for instance, decided to pick three countries to present different human rights legislation for LGBTQ people. I asked them to consider an additional table that shows how many countries (and which ones) follow similar laws (for instance: where is homosexuality punishable, where can homosexual couples get married). That way, their creative interpretation of the topic was upheld and led to a very interesting/engaging presentation, but an overall picture of the topic could be included as well. The second option if a presentation doesn’t include the information needed is to add questions during the discussion phase of the project to require additional research or point all students to the missing information. Hopefully, this won’t be necessary as students readily incorporate feedback – I have not had to do this so far.

I assess group projects online as well as face-to-face as a combination of my evaluation, a self- or team evaluation, and peer evaluation. Each group evaluates one other group’s presentation using the same rubric that I use. Additionally, the team members evaluate each other as well as themselves and their contributions to the team’s success. The final grade of the presentation consists of three equal parts: the average of the self-/team evaluation, my grade and the peer grade. This takes into account that some team members might contribute more than others (self-/team-grade) and how well the presentation works as a whole – as a coherent product is one of the main factors of a successful presentation. If one part of the presentation is a lot less successful than the others, the grade can be adjusted as the rubric asks for an evaluation of all three parts (history, legal, cultural representation) and the roles have been assigned in the beginning. I have found though that groups regulate themselves very well and will do extra work to make up for a group member’s missing contribution. They might then indicate that this specific group member didn’t do any work on their team evaluation, but the presentation itself has never reflected this and could still receive a good grade.

Overall, online group projects have proven to work well for me, sometimes even better than face-to-face ones as students do not need to find a time and place where to meet, but rather incorporate the group work into their regular online work. In evaluations, students commented that they were quite worried about the group projects beforehand but that they worked surprisingly well. This might be something worth sharing with students before they embark on their projects to alleviate these concerns.

Have you done group projects online? What tools have you used? Have you found other procedures to work well? What challenges have you encountered? We welcome feedback, ideas, comments and reports of experiences! If you are interested in handouts and rubrics, contact us here.