In recent years, distance education programs have enrolled an increasing number of students, according to the Digital Learning Compass. Many learners appreciate the flexibility and accessibility of remote programs. Like on-campus classes, online classes provide opportunities for classmates to work together.
Group work can sometimes be frustrating for students, and working online adds unique challenges. However, online group projects can help learners build remote collaboration skills they can apply to future careers. This guide offers tips related to preparation, group dynamics, communication, and time management to help distance learners work together successfully.
- Understanding the Assignment
Students embarking on group projects can avoid many common pitfalls by making sure that all team members thoroughly understand the assignment before they begin work. Everyone involved should read through the assignment carefully to get a sense of its pace, scope, and requirements. Group members should note the final project deadline and any intermediate benchmarks.
Groups may choose to read through the assignment together. Other groups may allow members to review the details on their own and then meet to discuss the assignment.
Being specific and explicit at this stage of the process can save time in the long run. Clear shared expectations can help forestall interpersonal conflicts and practical issues. If any disagreements or questions arise, group members should contact their instructor for clarification.
- Get To Know Your Group
While many online classes feature discussion forums and other community-building tools, students assigned to group projects may not know each other well. Setting aside time to become acquainted with one another can help the work go more smoothly.
Video chat is an ideal forum for this conversation. During the chat session, group members can learn about each other's strengths and capacities. Knowing how each student works best can help the team effectively delegate tasks. Some students may thrive as coordinators, while others excel at research, design, technology, editing, or managing interpersonal issues.
After establishing the role and tasks for each member, the team can set expectations for the project. Regular meetings help keep everyone on track, so this is also a great time to schedule the next group meeting.
- Time Management is Key
Online group projects can be complex and typically require careful coordination. Group members must balance the demands of the project with their other classes, work schedules, and personal obligations. Groups can avoid roadblocks by being aware of member schedules.
Group members should agree on a timeline so that everyone understands when they need to complete their assigned tasks. Groups should make this timeline as detailed as possible. Breaking down the assignment into smaller parts with unique target completion dates can make large tasks feel more approachable.
Each individual should complete their fair share of the work. Setting multiple benchmarks, instead of one high-stakes final deadline, helps keep group project members accountable for their contributions throughout the process. Groups can use online tools such as Google Calendar to make sure everyone can view the project schedule.
- Delegate the Assignment Online
Projects for online classes require students to work independently and collaboratively. Groups should be sure to assign responsibilities that play to the strengths of each team member. Everyone should understand their responsibilities and whom to contact if anything changes.
The division of work usually depends on the assignment structure. However, group project teams often include a few key roles. The project leader typically takes on core communication and team-management responsibilities. This role requires strong interpersonal, decision-making, and problem-solving skills. The project leader also ensures that all group members feel comfortable with the direction of the project and the group dynamics.
Other vital roles may include recorder, organizer, technology specialist, editor, proofreader, designer, researcher, and mediator.
- Set Deadlines
The instructor sets the final deadline for the assignment and may set deadlines for intermediate steps. Groups may also set target completion dates for various stages of the project, depending on the type of assignment. For example, a group working on an essay-based project might set internal deadlines for research, an outline, a rough draft, and a final draft.
Many group projects require team members to combine their work into a single presentation. In this case, teams should schedule a meeting before the project deadline to compile the assignment. Some groups may designate an editor to unify group members' various writing styles or a designer to craft a consistent appearance. Those members usually need everyone's contributions in hand at least a few days before the final deadline.
If the structure of the project allows members to complete their work independently, one group member should be designated to check that all the parts are submitted on time.
- Keep Open Communication
Online students have access to a variety of communication methods. Email or text are among the simplest and most accessible options. Some students prefer to use messaging apps, such as Slack or Google Chat. Most online learning platforms include built-in discussion features. Groups should agree on a mode of communication that everyone feels comfortable using.
Groups may also decide on certain times of day for communication. Group members often have varying schedules and may live in different time zones. Setting specific expectations about project-related communication can foster predictability and structure. Having established availability can also be beneficial in case of emergency.
Students should also consider whether communication should go to every group member or through one designated communication group member. Other groups may choose for individual members to handle specific questions or topics.
- If You Run Into a Problem, Alert Your Instructor
Learners should know their instructor's preferred method of contact so they can reach out with any concerns. Instructors are invested in their students' success and are usually happy to help learners resolve issues related to online group projects. For example, if your group is falling behind and needs a deadline extension, a member of the group should contact the instructor immediately.
One of the most common frustrations students experience with group projects occurs when some group members fail to complete their share of the work. If a group member misses deadlines, skips meetings, or stops communicating with the group, the other group members should contact the instructor for advice. Instructors can sometimes restructure the group. While you may not be able to control other group members' choices, you can still use the group project to demonstrate your commitment to working hard in your online class.