Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Improving the odds of effective collaborative work in online courses

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting with a group of online course designers and faculty to talk about how to improve the odds of involving online students in effective collaborative activities. In preparation for the discussion, I revisited a set of guidelines I had put together for other workshops and talks I deliver on the subject. Many of these guidelines have already found there way into this blog, but I thought it might be helpful to have them all in one place. So, the following are some guidelines and suggestions I've found helpful when designing collaborative (groupwork and teamwork) activities.

A couple of basic definitions

Tenets of collaborative/cooperative learning ~
– Positive interdependence
– Individual accountability
– Promotive interaction
– Development of teamwork skills (with guided practice)
– Regular assessment of teamwork functioning

Groupwork ~
– Activity spans short time frame.
– Groups formed spontaneously.
– Groups breakup after a session (little or no commitment).
– Most students equipped with skills to do groupwork.

Teamwork ~
– Activities span long time frame.
– Teams formed carefully.
– Teams stay formed and have commitments.
– Students are ill equipped with skills to do teamwork.

A few basic guidelines about collaborative work
  1. Balance individual and collaborative work, online and off-line work.

  2. Make sure collaborative work is relevant, and that learners understand the relevance.

  3. Even if you are not involving learners in collaborative projects, assign learners to study/support groups or involve them in other collaborative activities: role-playing, debates, discussion protocols (e.g., jigsaw, rotating stations, the final word), peer review, case studies, game/quiz show, competitions, group test taking, “Naked Came the Manatee” co-construction/writing, and so on.

  4. Assign learners to teams with 4-5 members. Form team with goal to spread abilities, skills and learning preferences/styles. [Follow a method, such as mixed ability, or learning preference assessment, or learning goal focus.]

  5. Keep learners in same teams during the whole semester.

  6. Build time into the course schedule for team formation.

  7. Establish explicit individual learner roles and responsibilities (e.g., organizer/project manager, main researcher, section writer, editor, etc.). Roles and responsibilities should lead to a fair division of labor. Rotate roles with each project.

  8. Have learners construct a team agreement, including ramifications of non-compliance with the agreement.

  9. Consider easier team projects early on, building towards more complexity.

  10. Establish a mechanism for checking in on teams and individual team members.

  11. Break a collaborative project up into a subset of deliverables (smaller, more manageable team projects), with due dates spread out across the timeframe.

  12. Engage in structured walkthroughs at various points during the project. [Use synchronous tools to meet with a team and ask pointed questions of each team member regarding contributions to the project, etc.]

  13. Require weekly status reports from each team/team member (e.g., summarize what the team accomplished this week, describe your most significant contribution to the project this week, describe why the contribution was significant, describe with other team members contributed, and describe what you need to accomplish on the project next week).

  14. With each project, include a team-graded component and an individual-graded component.

  15. Assess process, and/or product, and/or outcome.

  16. Consider “no jeopardy” approaches to collaborative work that allow for a submitted product to be complete without a missing member’s contribution. Examples include: each student completes an allocated task that contributes to the final team product and gets the marks for that task; each student writes and submits an individual report based on the team’s work on the task/project; each student takes an exam, with exam questions that specifically target the team project, and can only be answered by students who have been thoroughly involved in the project; each student’s contribution is assessed via individually-produced evidence such as status reports, journals, time logs, and direct observation; each student produces an individual paper based on the team project.

  17. Allow for the use of a variety of collaboration tools, not just those tied to the CMS/LMS. Also, use tools and technologies commonly used in the profession for which you are preparing students.

Assessing collaborative work: A few suggestions
  1. Teamwork rubric. Create a rubric for assessing collaborative contribution (see Figure 1), with clear criteria. Make that rubric available to learners well in advance of a collaborative project.

  2. “Rules of Engagement” contract. This contract should include information on:
    • Who will post: Which team member will be responsible for posting the group’s deliverables?
    • Leader or not: Some groups chose a leader to keep things moving, some groups change that leader each week (or every other week or whatever), and some groups decide not to do this.
    • Communication and deadlines: How will they communicate with each other? How often? Will they set interim deadlines? Some groups like to set certain deadlines, such as initial work done by Wednesday, rewrites by Friday, and final posted Sunday.
    • Equal contributions: How will work be distributed?
    • Preferred work style: Some people like to get things done during the week and take the weekend off and others prefer the opposite. What is your style? How will you handle style differences?
    • Not getting work done: What will the group do if one member cannot fulfill his or her obligations? Will that member be docked points, or can the member make up the work?
    • Known problems: Issues you know will come up, how to handle dates you know you will be out of town?

  3. Team Review Form: Figure 2 is a form learners use to assess each other’s contributions to team projects (as well as their own contributions). These assessments can have ramifications, such as if a team member receives less than 50 points on the Team Review Form from more than one team member then that learner’s points for the deliverable will be reduced by 20%. This form can be completed at the end of projects, or at key points throughout a project.

  4. Weekly status reports. Have learners submit weekly (or biweekly) status reports (see #13 under basic guidelines above).

  5. Public and semi-public structured walkthroughs. Use synchronous tools to meet with teams/groups during a project. In advance, provide the group with a set of questions you will ask about the project. When together, randomly select group members to respond to particular questions.

  6. Project quiz/exam. Once the project is complete, test team members on the content of the project.

Figure 1.

Figure 2.

And, a bonus. A fun video on the joys of teamwork.