Group Work in an Asynchronous Mathematics Course: Maximizing Benefits and Minimizing Obstacles

Concurrent Session 4
Streamed Session Community College/TAACCCT

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Student-to-student collaboration in the classroom has immeasurable value. The rise in online classes and platforms has instructors investigating best practices and pedagogies that allow for students to collaborate asynchronously. This session will investigate asynchronous group dynamics, and pedagogies that are effective vehicles of collaboration.

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Extended Abstract

Collaboration in any classroom has immeasurable value. Students who collaborate stay engaged, retain information longer, and participate in higher-order thinking skills more frequently. However, it can be difficult to implement peer-to-peer student collaboration in an asynchronous online environment. Instructors may face many obstacles while designing asynchronous class activities and assignments that require student-to-student collaboration. However, the benefits for collaboration outweigh the difficulties and many course designers and faculty are discovering new ways to provide collaboration in an increasingly online environment. As the need and desire for better quality and more interactive online courses arise, faculty are being asked to design curriculum and change pedagogies to rise to the challenge of implementing effective asynchronous group work in their courses.

This session will discuss the challenges and benefits of asynchronous peer-to-peer collaboration. The participants will explore different types of pedagogies and technologies that can minimize the students’ discomfort and maximize the benefits of working in an asynchronous collaborative group.

Because this session will be virtual, the technology utilized must allow both large and small group discussions. Although this does not mirror the environment being discussed, it will help the participants come to a better understanding of the potential solutions. The presentation will require the use of break-out rooms to be fully functional.

When designing projects and assignments for the online environment, faculty often take an already existing project that is done in a face-to-face class and simply post the project online for students to do. At best, there is a reference to working in groups, but no specific instructions on what that means.

Additionally, these types of projects can often be done by a lone individual who, with the best of intentions, completes the entire assignment before the group even has a chance to engage with it. This may happen in a face-to-face environment, but can readily be remedied because the instructor and students are all present together in a classroom at the time the assignment is given.

The need to change pedagogy for the group projects and assignments will be developed and discussed. Many projects and assignments often have a single answer which can be reached by following specific plans. While this can reinforce skills and techniques, it does not lend itself well to collaborative projects and does not provide the scholarly experience that allows for academic growth. Collaborative projects and assignments that are open-ended, based in real life, allow for customization and require decision making lends themselves to foster organic collaboration in asynchronous environments. In addition, these types of projects capture the interest of students and will assist in mitigating the negative reaction that many students express to group work.

Additionally instructors will find that students do not inherently understand what group work means in an online environment. By relying on past experience, many have learned that group work doesn’t work, and it is up to them to complete the assignments on their own. Changing the beliefs of the students does require scaffolding of assignments in the course, as well as clear and precise instructions about how groups are expected to function.

A major focus in this presentation is on how to correctly create projects that address both course objectives and an effective working group dynamic. To do this, we will follow the plan outlined below.

Participants will be asked to take an existing project that is normally facilitated in an in person class, and redesign it for an asynchronous platform. During this small exercise, participants will note the need for more support and direction in creating group projects and assignments in an asynchronous environment. Participants will also be asked to think about the common complaints from students about group work in general. How does an instructor mitigate the discomfort of students who complete group work, and allow for fairness in the assignment?

Participants will be presented with a project about ordering concrete to pour a concrete slab in a backyard. This project was designed to be done in class with the students working together in a face-to-face environment. Participants are instructed that this project will be redesigned for the instructor to give to students who are participating in an asynchronous online class. Students in the asynchronous class will be asked to work on the assignment in groups.

The very nature of an asynchronous environment makes the project harder to be done by a group of students, but also mirrors many current trends in the workforce of working asynchronously from home. Although groups may find times to meet synchronously, this may not occur for many students. Therefore, the instructor cannot rely on synchronous communication as students work on the project. And, students who simply pass work from one person to the next often do not communicate enough to help the project reach a successful conclusion. To demonstrate these difficulties, after seeing the original project, the participants will be given a project with the first step completed and will be asked how they would go about continuing the work for that project.

This process will constitute the first five minutes of the session (i.e., the Prompt section), allowing us to set up the problem and demonstrate some of the already recognized difficulties.

Depending on the number of total participants, we will then divide the session up into groups of four to six people each. This will constitute the “Brainstorming: Understanding the Challenge” portion of the session.

Groups will take time to brainstorm ways to encourage students to communicate and properly manage projects in an asynchronous environment such that individuals gain the insights and skills the project is seeking to build while groups complete required work. Prompts to encourage brainstorming meaningful methods of grading and providing feedback will also be discussed.

During this time, the facilitators of the conversation will visit the different groups to observe what is happening, answer questions, and provide additional prompts, if necessary, to encourage discussion. Some of these prompts will include the following:

·         How much synchronous interaction should take place in the course?

·         How can we encourage more proactive communication between students in a group?

·         What software can be used to facilitate communication?

·         Are there roles that students should adopt while working in groups? If so, should those roles rotate?

·         How will you handle conflict that occurs in the groups?

·         How will you grade the assignment? Will you account for individual contribution, or simply group accomplishment?

Once the Brainstorming portion of the session has passed, we will move to the Prototyping portion of the session. For this, participants will be given time to sort out their thoughts and ideas and create a two minute presentation explaining the insights they have gained in how to best facilitate asynchronous group work. 

Depending on time, each group may present their findings to the session as a whole, or volunteers will be asked to share and all groups will be asked to distribute their presentations following the meeting. Shared presentations will be discussed, and all participants are asked to provide meaningful insights into what they have learned. The primary goal of this portion of the meeting will be to come up with meaningful solutions to the problem of creating meaningful group assignments for asynchronous classes.

Because it is unlikely that all groups will have the opportunity to present their ideas, participants will be asked to send their presentations to the facilitators who will provide the collection to all participants.

The principle deliverable from this session is this presentation. By sharing with others, each participant will also receive additional presentations to think over. In addition, connections can be made and a community of peers can grow where ideas can be further explored, explained, investigated, and shared.

Participants will have a better understanding of the problems that make online group work different than group work in face-to-face environments. In addition, they will have explored potential solutions to maximize the online environment for group work while also minimizing the challenges. By exploring these concepts with an example project, they will also see potential ways to incorporate what they are learning into their own classes.