Managing Online Student Teams

 Managing student teams in online environments presents special considerations. Students who may be comfortable in face-to-face environments where they can see and hear their teammates find themselves less comfortable in an environment where teammates seem anonymous, distant, and not readily accessible.

Students in my online Business Writing class write a report in teams of four. Using a secure discussion forum, each team member contributes his or her part; then team members communicate with one another to compile the parts into one document and edit the report to its final form. Four strategies help me facilitate team work in this fully online course. 

Strategy #1: Preparing Students to Work in Teams Online

Before students know who their team members are, they discuss their experiences with team projects—what they like, what they do not like. I also ask them to discuss the challenges the online environment may present for their team projects.

Frequently, students say they enjoy teams because they ease the workload, allow for the exchange of a variety of ideas, and reassure students who wonder whether what they are doing is “right.” What they don’t enjoy is having team members who do not do their share of the work or who do not contribute quality work. However, the online students’ greatest concerns are timely communication and accommodating members’ varying schedules.

Following the discussion, I summarize students’ concerns in a course announcement and remind them to be a team member they would admire.  Incorporating this discussion at the beginning of the assignment establishes not only my expectations but the students’ expectations for one another.

Strategy #2: Matching Team Members Appropriately 

Matching students in teams with others who have similar academic abilities and levels of participation in the course works well. Whether students are A students or C students, their ability to participate in a project where group members’ expectations do not exceed any one member’s ability focuses the members on the task and the writing; they deal less with interpersonal conflicts that arise when students are perceived by their group members to be over or under achieving.

Furthermore, teams whose members participate in the group’s discussion area frequently do not wonder when or if members are going to participate; conversely, teams with less active participants seem content with that level of involvement and do not appear to believe that “good” team members need to check in several times a day.

Interestingly, teams with frequent member participation are not necessarily more likely to submit better reports. Some teams’ members communicate infrequently, yet they submit quality work when they do communicate and therefore do as well as teams with high member participation. Thus the quality of the interaction and like-mindedness among team members appear to influence the quality of the final assignment more so than the frequency of members’ interactions.

Strategy #3: Establishing Deadlines

Instructor-established deadlines for submitting individual work and editing the team’s report are essential. Students are more frequently accountable to my schedule than they are to one another’s.

Strategy #4: Holding Students Accountable

Holding students accountable for their participation and quality of their work discourages social loafers and offers other students some recourse if team members fail to participate. Students complete a survey to rate each team member’s participation on a scale of 1 – 5 regarding communication with the team and quality of their work. Students whose evaluation averages are a 4 – 5 share in their team’s score. Students who receive a 3 – 3.99 receive a letter grade deduction; average scores of 2 – 2.99 result in a two-letter grade deduction. Scores of 1 – 1.99 result in a score that’s 50% of the team’s report grade.

Students rarely contest peer evaluations; if they do, the online environment provides a great track record of a student’s performance.

Overall, making expectations explicit, matching team members evenly, and having structure and peer evaluation built in to the assignment make the management of online teams easier. Yes, conflicts still occur but as I’ve integrated these strategies, issues arise much less frequently and the teams run fairly smoothly. As always, if you have strategies to share, we’d love to hear about them.

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