Using an online collaboration platform to facilitate group work

Publication Type:
Conference Proceeding
Proceedings of the AAEE2020 Conference Sydney, Australia, 2020
Issue Date:
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The onset of COVID-19 necessitated moving three large-enrolment introductory engineering and IT subjects online after just one week of face to face teaching. All three subjects focus on facilitating students' learning through group work to solve a self-identified problem. Considering a key Subject Learning Outcome is 'to collaborate effectively in team processes', group work is integral to the aims of these subjects. Studies for both online and face-to-face group work identify the influence educators play in achieving successful learning outcomes and group satisfaction; for example, the importance of group work management (Xu, Du & Fan, 2015). While many challenges faced in online group work in education are common to face-to-face teaching (Roberts & McInnerney, 2007), it has been shown that "distance does matter" (Olson & Olson, 2000). The challenge was to facilitate the same level of cooperation between students and enable them to build teamwork skills without face-to-face interaction with teammates or educators. PURPOSE OR GOAL Moving three early-year subjects of approximately 600 students each onto an online collaboration platform over a short period provided new challenges. This paper will discuss the aspects of our transition to online group work that worked well, and those that did not, from the perspective of students and tutors. These insights into best-practice online learning will inform how teaching can shift into blended learning in 2021. METHODOLOGY Focus groups were conducted with students from one second-year and two first-year subjects. In these focus groups, students discussed their experiences of working in a group environment and how this experience can be improved. The comments from student feedback surveys and students’ comments from the SPARKplus peer assessments were also used. In addition, feedback on classes and materials were taken from tutors and compared to the students' view of the online classes. Transcripts and comments were analysed to identify recurrent themes. OUTCOMES Students had mixed feelings about the transition to online classes. Despite the use of many different strategies, issues with engagement remain. However, some strategies have emerged that motivate the students, while successful ways for groups to work together were discovered. Our research also indicates that the use of a learning platform which facilitates instant student discussion is worth further investigation for online classes. CONCLUSIONS/RECOMMENDATIONS/SUMMARY Online classes make it more challenging to engage students in group work based learning. However, careful fostering of group team spirit helps to lessen individual isolation. Some students thrive from the provision of instant feedback through an interactive learning platform. In future work, focus groups need to be conducted with students who achieved lower marks or dropped out of the subject to understand the issues they faced. More attention needs to be paid to the tutor perspective and how activities can be better adapted to student needs. KEYWORDS Transition online, group work, student engagement.
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