Any views expressed within media held on this service are those of the contributors, should not be taken as approved or endorsed by the University, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University in respect of any particular issue.

Thoughts on community and group work whilst studying online

My pet newts are not considered to be a social species, but will often aggregate in a group. This is the opposite of my social species, which tends to want to flee at the mention of “group work.”

I just wanted to write a quick blog post about what I’ve learned about community and group work when you are a distance learner.

I will start with a personal anecdote. When I was a teenager, my father spent 8 years completing a part-time MBA as a distance learner whilst working full-time in a very demanding job in the telecommunications business. He successfully completed the masters programme and my family was extremely proud of him on his graduation day, knowing the amount of work that had gone into the degree. Perhaps unsurprising, a large proportion of my father’s starting cohort never finished the degree, which exemplifies the challenges of studying online. The one factor that I do remember him emphasising, though, is the importance of group work. The students who did not engage in group work or travel to face-to-face study meetings were eventually the ones who dropped off the course. The collaboration and cognitive input from the whole group was essential for keeping up with the study material.

It was interesting to learn that, based on research, cooperative learning actually does improve academic achievement when compared to competitive and individualistic learning.

However, my own experience of group work has at times been disappointing and has very much depended on the group dynamics (see image). Good dynamics with a common agreed goal and rules of engagement usually resulted in the best experiences. I am tempted to say that the best experiences were in fact in groups that formed informally outside the classroom setting. Mandatory group work that was part of teaching often felt contrived and lacked the joy of the informal group. Why this difference?

Looking back, I can see that the informal study groups that I was a part of had a sense of community, whereas the randomly assigned formal group work tasks often did not.

I will end this blog post with a few thoughts on my experiences of the group task that I took part in for the Online Teaching course. For me, it unfortunately coincided with the final two weeks before starting annual leave when I was desperately tying off loose ends. Hence I ended up contributing minimally to this task, but luckily the rest of my group was very active and managed to finish the task ahead of the deadline, and I am grateful that I got to benefit from their inputs. I think this is a good reminder that the online learner often has other life priorities and engagement can be cyclical, and that’s OK. Overall I enjoyed the task, as I felt that there was a real sense of community across several different disciplines. Group members bounced ideas off each other and were open to new ways of thinking that were different from their own discipline’s familiar discourse (for example between art and vet medicine).

My take-home message is that an online environment can be used effectively to create a sense of community (having now experienced this myself), and this enables students from different backgrounds to work in groups in a meaningful way to achieve more than they would have done individually.


3 replies to “Thoughts on community and group work whilst studying online”

  1. mbreines says:

    Hi Emilia,
    Nice to read your reflections on this, especially about your own experiences in the past and how the group work can be central for people to complete their studies.
    And good to hear that you’ve found the group work helpful even if you did not have time to contribute as much as you would have liked.
    I thought you raised an interesting point about the different formations of groups (informal vs random) and how they generate different conditions for collaboration. Maybe you could reflect a bit further on how you will deal with this in your own teaching? Do you think it would work better to let the students choose their own groups or that there is some value in making them collaborate with random people? And what is your role in community-building in different kinds of groups? I’m just throwing out some questions that came to me as I was reading through.
    All the best

  2. Emilia Porter says:

    Thanks for your comments Markus!
    It’s interesting because despite my experience, I actually think that randomly assigned groups are often better in formal teaching situations than letting students decide. Letting students choose their groups can feel like a popularity contest, especially for more reserved individuals, so a random allocation removes the stress of having to first worry about who you will work with, on top of how you will manage the actual task.
    However, the next hurdle to overcome is working with people who you might not know, so it seems like good practice for the teacher to introduce some form of ice-breaker at the very beginning of the group task to start to build rapport.
    The benefits of collaborating with random people include having a wider range of backgrounds to draw ideas from and also the possibility of forming new connections with people who the student might not have spoken to otherwise.
    I think the teacher can also help support community building in groups by dropping by to check on progress and facilitate conversation with questions, as well as providing immediate feedback if the students are open to this. The teacher’s “visit” is almost like a confirmation that “you are going in the right direction.”

  3. mbreines says:

    Great – thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. Sounds like you have a good sense of how to approach this. Maybe it would be an idea to explore what kind of tools that exist for ice-breakers online?
    Best wishes

Leave a reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


Report this page

To report inappropriate content on this page, please use the form below. Upon receiving your report, we will be in touch as per the Take Down Policy of the service.

Please note that personal data collected through this form is used and stored for the purposes of processing this report and communication with you.

If you are unable to report a concern about content via this form please contact the Service Owner.

Please enter an email address you wish to be contacted on. Please describe the unacceptable content in sufficient detail to allow us to locate it, and why you consider it to be unacceptable.
By submitting this report, you accept that it is accurate and that fraudulent or nuisance complaints may result in action by the University.