Friday, May 04, 2007

Using Virtual Groups in Online Class

by Don Smith

In my Professional Writing course I broke the class down into four groups to work on the same group project. The primary purpose was to teach the students how to develop agenda, conduct meetings, and write up summary minutes of actions taken, issues raised, and next steps. The project was for the group to serve as a search committee planning a search and developing an ad for the made-up position of market manager for the E-Z Educational Software Company. The secondary purpose of the assignment was to give them experience on the other side of the search process, since their next assignment was to be doing their own resume and a letter of application.

I appointed a facilitator for each group, who was to coordinate the discussion, gather input from the other group members, and submit a project report and then a final copy of the agenda, minutes, and ad. The group would share the same grade--with these exceptions: 1) the grade would not be lower than the student's average in the course but could be higher, and 2) those that did not do their share of the work would not share in the grade.

How did the assignment go?

1. Appointing a facilitator or group leader worked very well. Of course I chose capable and dependable students, and they took the job quite seriously.

2. As usual, though, some of the members also took the assignment seriously and helped the facilitators, and some of them took the opportunity to shirk.

3. I don't know how to create a situation in which each member would be as responsible as the leader, since everyone cannot be put in charge, but if I had it to do over, I would have each member submit to the instructor the same work each was supposed to submit to the facilitator (each was supposed to do draft agenda and minutes and send those to the facilitator for compilation into a single draft). A second benefit would be that I would not have to ask the facilitators to rat on their fellow students.

What were the technological challenges?

1. It is not very difficult to set up groups in WebCT--each with its own discussion board and chat room, plus whiteboard for posting messages. But the language WebCT uses is not so user friendly, at least to someone like me. So, I had to seek help from Na Wu and Kristy Holly, and they were very helpful.

2. The problem is in part that WebCT seeks to serve a great variety of faculty members with a great diversity of needs. So, there are also more bells and whistles and options than I need for the simple stuff I do. Next time I will know better how to cut through the unnecessary.

3. The students are not uniformly capable of using the technology. I assumed all would know how to use a chat room. They didn't. I'm not sure everyone knew what it was. So, next time I will be more basic in my instructions.

4. However, students are very resourceful. I did point out contingencies they could rely on to complete the assignment if the technology proved problematic. It did. In one class, the discussion board completely crashed, owing to some system malfunction (not something I caused, thank goodness, since I live in fear that I will surely break something sooner or later in my floundering around). But the students were quite up to the challenge. They found ways to connect and get the job done--except for those who were not going to do their share, regardless of convenience or lack of it.

All in all, I think the assignment was successful, in that most of the students learned something useful, not the least of which was how to conduct meetings online. And I learned something, too, about how to make the assignment more successful or at least less stressful in the future. Not that learning can or should ever be stress free.

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