Managing group work in digital and blended learning

Outside photo of Jessop West building on the University of Sheffield campusThis page provides advice on designing, managing and assessing group activities in digital and blended learning environments. It covers both synchronous and asynchronous group work.

It complements the more general guidance on designing, managing.and assessing group work which can be found on the Elevate group work page.

The Faculty of Engineering have also produced comprehensive guidance on Running successful student group working in a blended environment.

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Why use group work in digital and blended learning settings?

Group work can help to build community and a sense of belonging, which is particularly important when students may be physically distant from each other. For more ideas about community building, see our resource on Building an online community.

Particular benefits of digital group working include:

  • Inclusivity: the digital learning environment can provide a less threatening and more democratic forum for contributions from group members. Using asynchronous tools for communication can allow all students to contribute.
  • Flexibility: Arranging face-to-face group meetings was never easy for students. Short online catch-ups can be a great way for group members to check in with one another, while the substantive work on projects can be undertaken flexibly and independently using collaborative tools.
  • Skills development: remote collaboration can be difficult but also prompts students to develop skills and attributes such as communication, self-motivation and use of a range of software.

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Key things to consider

The logistics of remote group work can be challenging, so you need to plan carefully and think about the difficulties your learners may face in their current situation.

To make group activities successful, you will need to:

  • Understand your students’ situation and needs. See our resource on Who are your learners?
  • Develop a clear rationale for group work (the task should be something that is better done as a group than as an individual).
  • Design activities carefully.
  • Communicate clearly with students: be explicit about the rationale for the task, how you expect them to complete it, if/how it will be assessed and what is valued.
  • Support students to develop group working skills.
  • Provide students with suitable tools for digital collaboration, and guidance on how to use them.

If you plan to assess group work, you will also need to think carefully about how you design the assessment and support students through the process.

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Types of group work

Type Examples Digital Tools
In class activities (synchronous)
  • Discussion with guiding questions
  • Solve a problem
  • Respond to a scenario
  • Analyse a case study
  • Annotate a diagram/image
  • Brainstorm ideas
  • Provide feedback on each other’s work
  • Practice a skill (e.g. interviewing, active listening, speaking a new language)
  • Define a key term/concept
  • Share your experience
  • Debate

Breakout groups within Blackboard Collaborate give students access to video/audio conferencing, live chat, a whiteboard, screen sharing and file sharing.

Google applications, e.g. docs, jamboard (an interactive whiteboard where you can draw, post sticky notes, share images) (not available in China)

Short-term asynchronous activities (completed within a few days/a week)
  • Discussion board activity (lots of ideas here)
  • Answer questions/solve problems
  • Briefly research a topic
  • Search for literature/ resources on a topic
  • Share notes and consolidate learning from lectures /reading/videos etc

Blackboard discussion board

Blackboard blogs

Google Doc/Blackboard wiki for collaborative document editing

Email

Students may choose to do some communication on alternative (non-University) platforms

Longer term group projects (asynchronous)
  • Research project
  • Design project
  • Group presentation
  • Business plan
  • Performance
  • Report

You can set up Blackboard groups to give online spaces for students to collaborate within their work groups. This provides areas where data is secure, and students aren’t expected to sign up for third party tools.

Groups can be set up so they are:

  • Manually enrolled by tutors,
  • Randomly allocated, or
  • Self-enrolled by students.

Examples of tools that can be used in group setting include:

  • A group blog
  • A group discussion board
  • A Blackboard Collaborate virtual meeting room
Students may choose to do some communication on alternative (non-university) platforms.

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Tips for small group activities in a virtual classroom (Blackboard Collaborate)
  • Allow participants (both staff and students) to attend a low-stakes test session to get used to the technology and iron out any technical issues.
  • Consider tools such as whiteboards, breakout rooms and polls, but keep things simple if you are new to the technology.
  • Google tools such as jamboards, docs and sheets are really useful tools for allowing groups to brainstorm tasks and start refining their ideas. However, these tools can not be accessed in China so use Blackboard alternatives such as whiteboards (in Collaborate) and discussion boards if you have students in China.
  • Set clear learning outcomes and guidance for any group activity so that students know what to do. Provide written as well as verbal instructions.
  • Set some ground rules for participation (or encourage students to develop their own). If you are lucky enough to be running the session with a colleague you could have one person answering questions on the chat whilst the other delivers. If you are running the session alone you might find it easier to ask students not to post comments and questions in the chat while you are talking and to signpost regular pauses in delivery for inviting this sort of interactivity.
  • Include time at the end of an activity for students to reflect on how effectively they were able to complete the activity. Provide prompts focussing on the aims of the activity.

Case study: Rachael Rothman (Chemical and Biological Engineering) ran a group project week online using breakout groups in Blackboard Collaborate.

Detailed technical guidance on using Blackboard Collaborate is available:

Blackboard Collaborate user guides

Tips for using breakout groups in Blackboard Collaborate

You can use Breakout groups for small group activities during a Collaborate session. Within the groups, students have access to video/audio conferencing, live chat, a whiteboard, screen sharing and file sharing. Here are some tips for making the most of them.

  • Help students to get used to the technology. Give them a chance to practice in an informal setting, and/or share this brief video with them ahead of a session:

Student guide to Blackboard Collaborate Breakout Rooms

  • Think about how you assign students to groups. You can do this randomly, choose the group membership yourself, or let students choose. If you assign the groups yourself, you may want to include a mixture of on-campus and off-campus students.
  • Explain why you are asking them to do a task in groups and what you expect them to get out of it.
  • Make a PDF of the task or questions you want students to work on in the breakout rooms and share it with the group once they are in there. Students will not be able to hear you talking from the main room if they are in the breakout rooms so a shared slide with instructions or questions can help them feel confident that they know what you want them to do.
  • If students have not worked together before, they may initially be hesitant to talk to each other. Include an icebreaker task to help them get to know each other or ask them to introduce themselves in the groups.
  • You might want to consider giving students a task to complete on a Google doc (remember students in China will not be able to access Google). If you do this make sure the document is set so that anyone at the University of Sheffield can edit it and post the link in the chat before you put students into the breakout rooms.
  • Encourage students to turn on their mics and cameras in the breakout rooms to improve the pace of discussion. If they are uncomfortable doing this there is also the chat panel. Let students know that the breakout group chat panel disappears when they come back to the main room so, although their comments are written, they are not recorded. This may be particularly helpful if you are asking students to discuss sensitive or controversial topics.
  • Explain to students how they can contact you if they have a question or problem in their group. For example, they could post to the ‘everyone’ chat thread, or they could message you directly.
  • As a moderator of the session you can enter each breakout group to check on students’ progress. Let the students know you are going to do this in advance so they are expecting you.
  • Timers are not available in breakout rooms so always give a time when you will bring students back to the main room and stick to it. Post in the chat to warn them when they have 5 minutes left and again when you are about to bring them back as the function to bring them back to the main room is quite sudden.
  • If you want students to remain in the same breakout groups throughout a session, with multiple visits, do not end the first session, and ask students to return to the main room manually. They can then return to the same breakout group later in the session.
  • After a small group activity, you might want to ask a representative of each group to feed back to the whole cohort. You can make a student a presenter to enable them to share their screen with the class. However, only make students presenters when you want them to share their screens otherwise they have control of your slides which can cause confusion if they start scrolling through them.

Case study: In the ELTC, students are put into the same groups in each teaching session throughout a course, so they can get to know each other. Students are often hesitant to participate in the early sessions, but speak out and collaborate more over time as they gain confidence with the technology and feel more comfortable with their group.

You can access step-by-step technical guidance on setting up and using breakout rooms:

Breakout groups user guides

Tips for asynchronous group activities and projects

Asynchronous activities can:

  • Benefit students who struggle to attend synchronous sessions.
  • Allow students with different time commitments and in different time zones to collaborate.
  • Allow students more time to think and respond to each other.

Longer term group projects can:

  • Enable groups to work on more complex tasks.
  • Allow more time to get to know each other and function well as a group.
  • Provide an opportunity for making friends.
  • Help students develop skills such as time management and project management.

Asynchronous group activities, and particularly group projects, require higher level group working skills as students need to work independently and manage their time (both individually and collectively). Make sure you support students to develop these skills. For further guidance on incorporating this type of skills development into your programme, contact 301@sheffield.ac.uk.

You can find guidance on supporting students and managing the practicalities of group work on the Elevate group work webpage. Following this guidance is even more important in a digital or blended learning environment, where students are likely to need more help with managing their own learning, and with group communication and collaboration.

Tips:

  • Try to provide as much clarity, structure and support as possible. Offering structured opportunities for support (e.g. an FAQ discussion board where students can ask questions; virtual office hours; scheduled Q&A sessions for the whole cohort; or scheduled check-in points with each group) can reduce the time you spend responding to individual student emails or dealing with problems in specific groups.
  • Support students to collaborate remotely by providing appropriate tools (see table above) and guidance on how to use them. Include opportunities for non-synchronous communication and collaboration.
  • Students may want to use additional (non-University) tools to communicate with each other, such as social media. Students should be mindful of the choices of their peers in whether they sign up for these services, and nobody should feel obliged to share personal information (e.g. their phone number or email address) or sign up for third-party tools.
  • Emphasise that group work does not mean working simultaneously and face-to-face (i.e. through Google Meet or similar) all the time. The bulk of most group work will take place individually and independently with regular meetings providing an opportunity for group members to report back, clarify the task, identify issues and overlaps, etc. There are a number of ways to facilitate this approach through the structure of the assignment:
    • Allocate key roles within the group: an organiser (to arrange meetings); a facilitator (to set agendas for meetings); a recorder (to record actions); a timekeeper (to set milestones and keep the group on track); a liaison (to act as a point of contact with the tutor).
    • Set intermediate group checkpoints: are there intermediate tasks that you can set to provide a coherent timeline for projects? For example: develop a project plan (using a Gantt chart or similar); share group task allocations; complete a draft output for review and feedback.
  • Signpost students to relevant support and guidance, e.g.
Making group work inclusive

Tips

  • Follow existing guidance on inclusive group work.
  • Consider how you allocate students to groups. Including both on-campus and remote students in a group is a good way to build a sense of community and help remote students feel more connected, but you will need to provide appropriate tools and support to enable equal participation from both groups of students (e.g. tools for asynchronous communication).
  • Give opportunities for asynchronous communication to accommodate differing time zones and personal circumstances.
  • Use institutionally supported digital learning tools and check the global availability of tools if you have students based overseas (particularly in China).
  • Follow guidance on digital accessibility and make your students aware of the principles of accessibility. Blackboard Ally is a useful tool for checking the accessibility of content and enables students to download documents in alternative formats.
Digital tools for assessing group work

General principles and guidance for assessing group work can be found on the group work page.

We also provide a range of guidance on designing and setting up digital assessment, accessible via the Elevate help page.

Below are details of some digital tools that may be particularly useful for assessing group work:

Blackboard assignment tool

If setting group assignments, Blackboard’s Assignment tool can be useful, as one student in a group can submit a file (or series of files) on behalf of the entire group, and feedback can be distributed to all group members simultaneously.

Tools for peer assessment

The current peer assessment tools available are:

Both of these are geared around peer marking, and involve submissions being swapped between students for feedback.

PebblePad also includes peer assessment that can be quite flexible, and could be an option to consider if you are already using, or are considering using, PebblePad.

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Further information

Further information
  • Elevate: Group work

Elevate: Group Work

  • 301: Group work and collaboration

301: Group work and collaboration

  • Faculty of Engineering: Running successful student group working in a blended environment.

Faculty of Engineering

Further reading

Online/remote group work:

Inclusive group work:

Assessing group work: