301 Guide to Participating in Online Group Work

 Working with others is something you will be asked to do time and time again, both at University and beyond. At face value, this might seem like something that is easy enough, but there are many challenges that working with others is likely to present. With the blend of face-to-face teaching and digital delivery, you may be asked to complete group work online. This may be a new experience for you and so we have put together these resources to provide you with guidance and tools to support you in being successful when participating in online group work.

As with face-to-face group work, you need to consider how you will adapt to each challenge to get the most out of not only the group, but yourself too. For example:

  • Different peoples’ learning styles; their different strengths and weaknesses; what motivates them and what makes them lose interest in a task
  • You need to understand your role in the group, as well as everyone else’s
  • You need to develop the social skills of knowing when to stand your ground and when to compromise; when to offer and give help if it’s needed; and how to appreciate different methods to your own
  • You will also need to develop a shared understanding of what the task is, agree who will do what, and when and how each member will report back to the group as a whole

The guidance, recommended tools and examples within this resource are primarily aimed at supporting you with some of the specific challenges associated with online group work. However, online group work shares many common features with group work undertaken face-to-face. We would therefore recommend that you also review our extensive guidance on group work and collaboration available via Study Skills Online.

Things to consider when undertaking group work online

There are a number of things you should consider when approaching online group work, including:

Organisation

As with any group work, effective organisation is a key element of successful online group work:

  • Consider setting ground rules and expectations for the group. How will you communicate and how often, what digital tools will you use to share documents, and how will progress against objectives be monitored and reviewed etc.
  • Collectively agree the allocation of roles within the group (you could change the roles regularly or leave the same throughout). You may find it useful to view this short Group roles in group work video to help you get started with identifying and allocating roles
  • It is possible that not everyone in your group will be based in Sheffield throughout the period in which you are working in the group. You may need to consider factors such as different time zones and different access to digital tools and resources. Planning for this at the outset will make things run more smoothly.

Ensure that you also follow any specific instructions from your department and if you are unclear about the task you have been set, you can contact your tutor for clarification.

Communication

  • Consider how you will communicate synchronously (e.g. video calls) and asynchronously (e.g. email).
  • Agree group expectations regarding how you will communicate and when, for example, how often will you arrange online meetings, will you agree timescales for sending and receiving emails etc.
  • When sending emails or in other forms of written communications, ensure that you write coherently and avoid slang words or jargon. It is particularly important to be clear as clear and precise as possible in your communications during online group work to avoid any misunderstandings
  • Frequent, short, synchronous communication via video call may be a good way of keeping in regular contact and ensuring good levels of understanding amongst the group, allowing you to stay focused on the objectives of the group
  • Discuss synchronous communication within your group as some group members may find this more challenging due to limitations with their internet connection or limited access to a suitable space in which to join video/audio calls
  • Ask for clarification if there is something that you don’t understand
  • When holding online meetings, write minutes and prepare them as soon as possible after the event to help everyone stay up to date with conversations. They also provide a useful record to look back on and recall what was discussed and any actions that were agreed

Reviewing progress

  • Set regular intermediate checkpoints to monitor and reflect on progress. Regular, short, synchronous catch ups could be useful in monitoring progress and agreeing next steps
  • Consider digital tools that could help you to review progress. A range of tools and how they could be useful are included within this resource
  • As in face-to-face group work you may encounter challenges and difficult moments. You may find it useful to watch the Dealing with difficult moments during group work Study Skills Hack video which has some useful tips on how to manage these moments
  • Even with good planning, sometimes there can be teething troubles in a group situation. It can be worth checking everyone is happy with the means of communication, roles etc to iron out a small issue before it becomes bigger.
Digital Tools to support your online group work

There are a number of digital tools that could be useful for online group work, including:

Google Suite

Google Drive
Google Docs
Google Mail
Google Calendar

Google Suite: There are a range of collaborative tools available via Google Suite, accessible via your University of Sheffield login. Use google docs to create a collaborative document, calendar to organise your time, slides to develop a group presentation and drive to store and manage files and resources.
Google Jamboard Google Jamboard can be used as a digital whiteboard for sharing and developing ideas which allows you to work together in the development of ideas in real time
Padlet (external resource) Padlet is a free tool that allows you to pool ideas remotely among a group using the equivalent of digital post-it notes. You can get down your initial thoughts on a topic, organise your ideas by theme or create a structure as part of the initial planning stages of a project.
Trello (external resource) A simple and free online project planning and management tool. Trello allows you to divide up a task into sub tasks, allocate responsibilities among a group and set and track deadlines
Google Meet (linked to your University of Sheffield account) Allows you to hold online meetings and also allows screen sharing. Meetings can be set up and managed from your Google Calendar and it is quick and easy to use
Google Hangouts (linked to your University of Sheffield account) Google Hangouts allows you to have instant conversations either via chat, phone or video call. You can either have a one-to-one or group conversation
Social Media e.g. Facebook, WhatsApp etc. (external resources) You may wish to set up discussion groups etc via other social media channels. Take care when considering using such tools as some members of the group may not use or wish to use certain platforms for university work. Remember: you do not have to blur the boundary between your work and social identities in your use of social media. Set up new groups for specific purposes where possible and manage your account preferences to ensure that you can keep your private life private if you choose to do so.

You may also be recommended to use other platforms by your department, for example, the various tools available within Blackboard Groups. Always read the information provided by your department carefully to ensure you are following any necessary guidelines and instructions.

Additional considerations when selecting appropriate digital tools

  • Make sure that everyone has access to the tools that you select to use. This could be especially relevant if your group are based at any time in different countries where access to certain tools may be limited
  • In addition to having access to the tools, ensure that everyone is aware of and confident in how to use the tools you have selected

Case Studies: Examples of effective online group work

In response to the transition to remote learning in March 2020, the vast majority of group work had to be moved online. In recognition of the many examples of effective online group work that were taking place across the institution, the Neil Rackham Foundation Award was established. There were over 80 submissions to the award in the form of videos, blogs/vlogs and written pieces, each of which demonstrated excellent problem solving, collaboration, creativity and communication within group work. The six award-winning winning entries are available to view below. These provide case studies of effective approaches to online group work that you may find useful to read and reflect on in advance of undertaking online group work yourself.

Neil Rackham Foundation Award Winners

LandLab

Journalism Society

SU Volleyball Club

Survey Design and Data Collection

UoS Islamic Society

Anyone Can Engineer

Reflecting on your experience of online group work

Your experience of online group work presents an opportunity to develop and enhance your skills and learn new ways of working. Take time to reflect on your experiences and draw learning from them. This will both support you in similar activities in the future, both within your studies and beyond. We have developed a range of guidance and resources to support you in engaging in reflective practice that you may find useful.

Top Tips for online group work

  • Organisation is key to successful group work, so spend time early in the process to agree expectations, identify anything that may pose a challenge (e.g. working across time zones, limited internet access etc.) and consider the allocation of different roles within the group
  • Take time to plan how you will communicate, how frequently and in what formats
  • Set regular intermediate checkpoints to monitor progress
  • Identify appropriate digital tools to support your group, ensuring that everyone has access to the selected tools and is confident in how to make use of them
  • Reflect on your experiences of online group work to identify key learning that you will apply to future group work tasks you undertake

You can find further guidance and advice relating to group work and collaboration via Study Skills Online.

Any questions? Please don't hesitate to get in touch with us at 301@sheffield.ac.uk