The OU centre for STEM pedagogy
Development of group working skills is important both in terms of employability and as part of a collaborative learning approach but students may not always recognise the importance of it. Online collaborative group work in the work-place has become even more important due to COVID-19 since many people have been forced to work online rather than face to face.
Online collaborative group work has been developed at the Open University since the 1990s and over the last 10 years, with T215 and TM255, has had an 8-week block of work devoted to it in a Level 2 module relating to communications and information technology. During this period the nature of the collaborative work has changed somewhat in relation to timing, the spread across blocks and complexity of the task. At the same time the student profile has changed significantly due to funding necessitating a qualification focus, more students taking more modules simultaneously, and less face to face tuition taking place.
The original aims of this study were to better understand which strategies best support students to engage with online collaborative projects and which strategies best help tutors to support students in this activity. Three Tutor Groups were involved from which students were recruited for interviews regarding their experience of the group work, as well as a support mechanism, pre, during and post group work; the three tutors kept reflective diaries of the group work process; tutors were surveyed about their experience of engaging students and the support strategies with a follow-up interview to investigate this further. Students appreciated the additional support of weekly support bulletins, short telephone calls at key points and a focused group work tutorial.
A key concern is engagement of other students and other pressures impinging on themselves which may limit their engagement and the quality of the engagement. Tutors appreciated the weekly bulletins and some would welcome additional support from the Module Team but had concerns about student engagement including slow starters, not being able to address the non-engagement; insufficient information to group students; fostering of relationships; complexity and timing of the task and difficulties assessing the task. That said those students that engaged fully with the tasks tended to achieve high marks and retention does not appear to be affected by the group work.
Key themes that have emerged are tutor skills/experience, assessment, engagement, nature and timing of the task and difficulties in fostering relationships. A set of recommendations have been drawn in terms of strategies to address these potential issues, and it is recognised that some aspects will need further investigation. These strategies may be at a level tutors can implement such as approaches to selecting groups and weekly bulletins although this may only impact on those who are already engaged; some are at module team level such as complexity and timing of the task and technologies utilised.
Higher level strategies by faculty or above in terms of how to incentivise students to engage in group work could be needed particularly in relation to the significance of employability skills and the place of online collaborative group work in the curriculum.