Thoughts on group projects

I’m teaching the Library Assessment course for SILS this semester. The major assignment for that course is one large semester-long project: the students work with a client library on an actual evaluation project, usually one that otherwise might not get done at all. Thus, hopefully this project is a win-win: the students get experience working on a real project, and the library gets some free labor. But the point is, an assignment like this only works when it’s a group project; the amount of work involved is greater than any one student could manage solo. Which is of course the point: so much library work, and especially library evaluation work, is done in groups and on teams. Group work gets a bad rap in higher ed, it seems to me, but I think it really is the more real-world approach to course assignments. Thus making it, in my opinion, the more pedagogically sound approach to course assignments, at least in a professional school, for a course like this one.

Now that the semester is halfway through, I have a few things to say about managing group projects in an online course. So I’ll devote a couple-three posts to that topic.

One of the issues that inevitably comes up with group projects is coordination among the group members. I prefer to let project groups in my courses self-organize: I tell students that they can use what ever methods and tools they want to coordinate within their group. I set up shared group spaces within Sakai, if they want to use them, but I also explain that they should feel free to use other tools if they prefer. (What I’ve observed is that in fact most student groups seem to use email for communication, and Google Docs for production.)

In a classroom-based course, of course, it’s easy for students to communicate and coordinate — since, after all, they’re all in the same room together twice a week. I try to set some time aside at the end of at least one class session per week, at least at the beginning of projects, so working groups can get together to discuss. But there’s none of this all-in-the-same-room together-twice-a-week thing in online courses. So I encourage students to exchange email addresses, Twitter handles, and whatever other contact information they cared to share, and I set up private discussion forums for groups in Sakai.

But even so, what I observed was that it took a week or so for groups to fully ramp up. That is, to get to the point of everyone having met and introduced themselves, exchanged contact information, and to start developing a plan of action. All of which would have happened in 15 minutes in the classroom. So lesson #1: coordination online takes longer. No big surprise there, really. But that extra time needs to be baked into the planning for online group projects.

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