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Improving and evaluating inclusivity in group project work for distance-learning engineering students

Projects and teamwork are the predominant context in which most engineers work. Providing supported learning experience of such contexts supports employability for our students. However, group projects are particularly problematic within the OU setting, both because the distance learning format makes group cohesion more difficult, and because we have a relatively high number of students who might be disadvantaged through such activity.

Meanwhile, inclusivity represents a critical issue for the engineering professions. While most of the UK engineering professionals are white, male, and able-bodied, recent publications have highlighted the relevance of understanding the needs and experiences of different groups in engineering design and the positive impact that diverse teams can have. The OU has a critical role to play in supporting a more diverse engineering profession. However, to do so we need to make sure both that all our students are supported in their studies, and that they are aware of the importance of diversity and inclusivity.

Our scholarship project is about improving inclusivity for distance-learning group projects. The specific context is T229, a Stage 2 specialist engineering module which includes a distance group project. The scholarship project also aims to add to the wider knowledge base on inclusivity in similar STEM distance learning group projects.

The initial stage reviewed the academic literature and the feedback from students and ALs on the T229 group project, to identify potential barriers to different student profiles. This helped us develop survey questions for OU Stage 1 and 2 engineering students (including T176, T276 and T229) who have experience participating in distance group projects, and ALs who delivered the T229 tuition. Some longer interviews with students and ALs were carried out to collect deeper insights.

The analysed data from the literature, surveys and interviews were triangulated to develop guidelines for the design and delivery of inclusive distance-learning group projects.

Key aspects of the design are:

  • a clear definition of the task with flexibility in the number of members and roles;
  • to provide learning materials about how to work in a group;
  • assessment designed so that most of the marks do not depend on the work of other members;
  • authenticity of the task;
  • correct time allocation for the task;
  • icebreaking and debriefing activities.

Key aspects of the delivery are:

  • timely delivery of learning materials and communications (well in advance before the start of the activities);
  • formation of the groups considering students’ time availability;
  • formation of the group considering students’ attitudes when working in a group;
  • choice of suitable platforms for group meetings and communication tools, discouraging options outside the OU that tutors cannot check;
  • proper support for associate lecturers.