Building a Community One Group at a Time

Concurrent Session 3

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Group work presents both opportunities and challenges in the asynchronous online environment. Yet, group interactions increase active learning. To foster more engagement, student satisfaction and better learning results, we have implemented a number of tools and will share our findings, strategic considerations, and significance for curriculum development and course design.


Olga has 4 years of experience working as Instructional Designer at the UNE for the Masters of Social Work Online Program, and over 10 years of working in professional development and training for educators (K-12, higher ed and adult ed) in using instructional technology and lesson/course design. Prior to this she worked as a foreign language teacher and adjunct professor.
Barbara has been employed at the University of New England since 2014 and currently serves as the Program Director for the online Science Prerequisites for Health Professions program. In this role, she oversees the rigorous curriculum, faculty, professional development, and student satisfaction. Prior to this position, she taught science courses in oceanography, marine biology, meteorology, astronomy, and other areas in Geosciences. She has over 16 years of experience in the field of education at multiple levels, with 6 years in higher education.

Extended Abstract

At the University of New England, the online programs are a rapidly growing sector. With this growth, we strive to maintain high quality courses and student interactions. Our matriculated programs have very high retention rates due to high-touch student support. Student success is affected by the human connections students’ form while enrolled in our programs. Group work is a contributing factor in the formation of quality connections and successful program completion.

We have a number of program formats, ranging from matriculated graduate programs to degree completion programs to undergraduate-level, non-matriculated, self-paced prerequisite science courses which can be taken a la carte.

In this presentation, we will review our efforts and pilot implementations of group projects, discussions and collaborative assignments within two different programs – the Master’s of Social Work and the Science Prerequisites program.

Currently within these programs, we use Blackboard groups, discussions boards, and wikis to foster student interaction. Each of these includes a variety of formats. Students may have course-long group projects, which often include informational or advocacy websites, group scripts using Google Docs, literature reviews in discussion forums, current event discussions, medicine compendiums using the wiki tool, etc.

While we have included group work and collaborative assignments in our courses, we are finding limitations and challenges. For instance, in Blackboard groups we have limited tools, no chat feature, poor group management; a tracking and notification system that is subpar; grading issues; and unequal student contributions.  As a way of tracking progress, instructors ask students to report on their group experiences, and it is invasive to the group process.

For these reasons, we have searched for collaboration tools that integrate with Blackboard, track student participation and contributions; allow students to publish their projects outside of the LMS (as an option); allow the instructor to invite outside participants/experts as needed; and work on multiple platforms and devices.

These tools must allow flexible membership (study groups, for instance). We have looked at Blackboard Community Engagement organizations in particular.

We are in the process of implementing and assessing several tools. We are collecting data regarding student performance, course completion and overall student satisfaction with courses as we go forward with integration of more collaborative assignments and group projects.

Anecdotally, after discussions in self-paced courses were added, some students have reported that they are more engaged and more connected, and they feel like there is more instructor presence. Faculty similarly report that they feel more connected to students. We anticipate that we will have similar feedback from students in our courses that include more group interaction .

This is a project in progress. We will share our findings as we collect them and are open to discussion and feedback from the session participants.