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In this latest article, we explore how to improve collaboration in distance learning by empowering students to own the collaborative process.

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Making Collaboration Work in Remote Learning

We’ve all been there before when we were students. You’d hear the dreaded words “group project,” and immediately begin calculating the additional work that you would need to do to keep the group afloat. You check the list of names on the board. You’ll be with the drifter, who wanders around the class chatting with friends. You’ll have the needy student who wants to ask the teacher a series of questions before making any decisions. Then you’ll have the feisty fighter who picks arguments out of sheer boredom. At that point, you would realize that you’d be doing four times the amount of work you would normally do on a project.

It’s no wonder that so few remote learning classes include collaborative grouping. After all, the challenges of in-person groups seem amplified in virtual spaces. There tends to be less accountability for group members and less oversight from instructors. It is easier to disappear and avoid getting work done. Logistically, it can be challenging to schedule collaborative meetings. For this reason, it’s tempting to avoid group work in distance learning courses.

And yet, distance learning often leads to isolation. During the pandemic, many students described the feelings of loneliness and disconnect as they shifted into online environments. We are social creatures and we need human interaction. This disconnect is amplified when online courses are designed with only individual work in mind. Over two decades ago, researchers Anderson and Garrison (1998) demonstrated that success in an online course depended on the relationship between the student and the content, the student and the instructor, and the student and classmates. Furthermore, when students are not collaborating with classmates, they miss out on new perspectives, new ideas, and new approaches to solve problems. They miss out on the opportunity to develop critical soft skills, such as communication, problem-solving, and creative thinking.

In remote learning, students often interact with one another without actually engaging in collaborative work. Here, they are cooperating rather than collaborating. Cooperation begins with mutual respect while collaboration begins with mutual trust. Cooperation requires transparency but collaboration requires vulnerability. Cooperation includes shared goals but collaboration includes shared values. Cooperation is independent but collaboration is interdependent. Cooperation is often short term while collaboration is often long term. Cooperation involves the sharing of ideas as a group. However, collaboration involves generating entirely new ideas together. Both collaboration and cooperation are both necessary in remote and hybrid learning. Cooperation without collaboration can lead to disunity while collaboration without cooperation can lead to groupthink and a loss of individual agency.

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The key, then, is to craft learning experiences that can make the most out of collaboration and cooperation. This is admittedly challenging. However, we can help students become better self-starters and self-managers in their small groups when we design structures to increase student ownership in the collaborative process.

Ensure Individual Accountability

Student ownership begins at the individual level. Even though group members are working together as a whole, each individual member should be contributing. If students are working on a group project, they should move between individual, partner, and small group tasks. This has the added bonus of allowing introverts additional processing time while also ensuring that each student is accountable for their own work.

It helps to start from a place of interdependent learning. If independent learning is fully autonomous and dependent learning involves students simply depending on another person, interdependence is the overlap, where students have autonomy but they must have mutual dependence on one another.

When students work interdependently, each member is adding value to the group project. So, what does this look like? One example is the following brainstorming strategy. Here, each group member generates ideas alone, then meets together as a whole group to share their ideas, narrow down their ideas, and clarify ideas.

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Notice that students must listen to one another and depend on each other for new ideas. At the same time, they each must contribute. Even the “low” student has something valuable to add to the group. This is a core idea of interdependence. Each member has something valuable to add. A distance learning variation is to have students submit their ideas on a shared Google Form and then analyze the spreadsheet afterward. They can negotiate their ideas with a video chat or using a shared document.

Similarly, when doing research, every student can add additional information to the group’s shared knowledge. They can read articles online or listen to podcasts that are varying reading levels and interest levels and then share what they learn during an interdependent research debrief. Students can share their debriefs in a group chat or in a video conference. Or they might simply add their ideas to a shared graphic organizer.

In some cases, you might assign roles that correspond to mastery levels. For example, when students move from inquiry to research, they often need to narrow down their questions to determine which ones will actually guide the research process. Here’s what the process looks like. See if you can spot the interdependency and differentiation.

  • Students generate questions independently. They might need sample questions or sentence stems, but they can all create questions.
  • Once they have their questions, they can send them to a Google Document or submit them on a Google Form.
  • Students meet up via video conference or on the phone to analyze the questions to see if they are actually research questions. Each member has a role. The first member checks to see if the question is fact-based. The second checks if it is on-topic. The third checks to see if it is specific. The fourth person is the quality control leader.
  • Members #1-3 can put a star by each question that fits their criteria. So, member #1 looks at each question and puts a star by questions that are fact-based. Meanwhile, member #4 is available to help and observe. Then member #4 double-checks all the questions with three stars and circles or highlights it if it’s an actual research question.

Note that a struggling student might still be able to do the job of member #1 or 2 while a more advanced student can do #3. Meanwhile, the group member who typically dominates and achieves at a higher academic level learns to trust other members and wait and observe. However, they can still provide expertise as the quality control person who has the final say.

Interdependent structures will not guarantee that individual students engage in collaborative work. Teams will often need to navigate conflict to deal with students who disengage. It’s important to remember that disengagement is complicated. Some students check out because the task seems too hard or too confusing. Others struggle to get along with their teammates. For this reason, it also helps to have team members develop a set of shared norms or expectations.

Empower Teams to Set Norms and Expectations

While it is important to have norms for the entire class community, it’s also important to have students develop norms as a team. As a teacher, you might suggest a few categories, such as: being responsibility, communication, active participation, conflict resolution, and respect. Other times, you might have students develop the norms on their own. You might even ask students to look at sample norms. Once groups have created an initial brainstorm of norms, place students in other groups to see if there are any norms from other groups that they may want to add. Next, have groups expand their norms and then narrow down their list of norms. Finally, they can wordsmith their norms. The goal should be consensus rather than voting. In other words, the norms should be agreed upon by everyone in the team.

It’s important that students understand that the norms are their shared expectations. When working in teams, they might need to remind themselves of the norms. Over time, though, these norms become an internalized part of the small group’s identity.

After developing norms, group members need a process to provide feedback to one another. Some teachers provide group contracts where each team has the norms and consequences. Other teachers use mediation techniques to help students who are struggling to work together in teams. It often starts with a peer mediation process. If that fails, the instructor can guide the conflict resolution process. Another option is to use anonymous surveys where each team member shares how the group is functioning in key areas such as communication, trust, conflict resolution, and productivity. Here, group members do not rate one another. Instead, they assess the team as a whole.

It’s important that students have developed trust as they give one another feedback. The following video explores the relationship between peer feedback and trust.

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Note that having students grade one another can backfire. This can actually create risk-aversion, where team members are afraid to speak up. It can also introduce an unhealthy power dynamic. Furthermore, students are trained on assessment theory and practice. You, as the instructor, should be the sole person grading group members.

Empower Teams to Own the Project Management Process

Teams often struggle with self-management. They miss deadlines and fail to use their time effectively. This is often amplified in groups where members are good friends. So, even when they have interdependent structures and they have developed group norms, the entire small group can become unproductive throughout a collaborative project. This is especially true in virtual environments, where the instructor isn’t constantly present to get students on task.

The counter-intuitive solution is for students to own the project management process. As students own the process, they develop the skills of collaborative self-management.

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Project management begins with goal-setting based on the big picture idea of what you want to accomplish. Here, students need to have a clear sense of where they are going and what it will look like when they are finished. As a teacher, you can help walk them through the visualization process by modeling the thinking process. You might provide sentence frames or even exemplars the first time they think strategically about their goals. You might hold a virtual meeting where you provide feedback on their goals and help them break down tasks. 

Which leads to the next part . . .

Project management also involves breaking the project down into tasks and subtasks with clear setting deadlines. As a teacher, you can empower groups to set deadlines on their own. You might provide a graphic organizer that helps them visualize each part of a task, creating a bridge between the abstract ideas with the concrete actions. In this phase, teams develop a plan of action and select the tools and materials.

If you’re working collaboratively, you often divide up roles and responsibilities. Students can negotiate who will do specific tasks and who will own specific responsibilities. This can help ensure that groups are valuing individual student agency while also working as a cohesive team. As a teacher, you might create group roles as an initial framework and then allow team members to modify those roles as they see fit.

Next, students choose and implement specific strategies. Here, student ownership includes choosing their method of tracking progress. Some students might use a color-code spreadsheet with tasks, sub-tasks, members responsible, and deadlines:

Or they might use a Trello board, which can enable them to use progress bars, to-do lists, and virtual cards. They might go more hands-on and old school by using sticky notes on a giant calendar. But the point is that they are choosing their ideal strategy for tracking progress.

Students will likely run into barriers, which will force them to problem-solve and experiment. They might even need to pivot and re-examine their original goals. But that is a chance for you, as a teacher, to walk them through the iterative process. When students learn the project management process, they grow into self-directed learners, capable of being self-starters and self-managers. 

Empower Teams to Own the Communication Process

Sometimes students struggle with collaboration in remote learning because of the challenges in virtual communication. For this reason, it helps to teach students when to use both synchronous and asynchronous communication tools. In other words, you can empower groups to set up the type of communication along with setting their schedules.

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We live in an era of constant digital communication. With the tap of a button, we can share insights and collaborate with people all over the world. But there’s a cost. We can easily get distracted and lose our focus. Quality communication requires intentionality.

This is why it helps to think about the distinction between synchronous and asynchronous communication tools. Synchronous communication happens in real-time, in the moment. Asynchronous communication does not happen in real-time. Instead, it can happen over a longer period of time.

Both synchronous and asynchronous communication have their distinct advantages and disadvantages. Synchronous communication is faster and more dynamic. It’s great for active participation and interactive discussions. It tends to work well with smaller groups. But it can lead to frequent interruptions and distractions that get in the way of deep work. But with asynchronous communication, there’s no need to schedule, which means you can go at your own pace with fewer disruptions.

Asynchronous communication works well when internet connection is unstable or when participants are in different time zones. It also tends to allow for a permanent record of the communication. However, asynchronous communication doesn’t work well when you need to address issues in the moment and it can feel less interactive.

Some communication platforms blend synchronous and asynchronous. A walkie-talkie app lets you communicate in the moment but also listen later and even adjust the speed. A shared document has real-time edits but the comments are asynchronous and there is a permanent record of all annotations. Video chats can occur in real-time but also be recorded for replay. This can help increase accessibility. Meanwhile, social media platforms often blend together live and recorded videos, chats, and updates. Both synchronous and asynchronous communication are necessary for collaborative work.

Often collaborative teams will blend together synchronous and asynchronous tools as they engage in remote learning. In some cases, though, you might have to help them navigate this terrain. This is why it’s important to still check up on small groups.

Empowered Teams Still Need Check-Ins

Distance learning doesn’t mean we have to be relationally distant. As teachers, we can be intentional about creating a sense of presence with our students. Here are a few ideas you might consider as you connect with small groups:

  • Video announcement: This starts with he first week, where you do an on boarding video of the course and explain how it will work. But after that, you can create a weekly or even daily short video with a preview of what students will do. Although pre-recorded, these short, unstructured videos create a sense of presence for you as a teacher. You might provide advice on how to navigate conflict as a team or you might create some videos about how to own the project management process.
  • Small group check-ins: Here, you can schedule small group meeting and use video conferencing to meet with groups and look at their progress. You can ask students about their challenges and help teams navigate conflict. You might ask them to reflect on their goals and their progress.
  • Email check-ups: This idea is simple. Just send an email reminding students of the deadlines but then asking them to respond to a reflective question. If they don’t respond, it becomes a chance to reach out to them again.
  • Short text check-ins: With this option, you can ask students to use the chat function to send questions or comments as you go.
  • Surveys: Ask students to fill out a course survey each day where they share what their experiences have been in an online course. You can include specific surveys about how the group is functioning as a whole.

It’s not always easy to make collaboration work in remote learning. In fact, it’s rarely easy. That’s part of why so few instructors design the systems to make this happen. Even when you design the systems well, there will be challenges and conflict. Humans are inherently messy and students are deeply human. But there’s also something powerful that happens when collaboration works. And the fact that it’s challenging shouldn’t discourage us from designing systems that boost creative collaboration. Ultimately, it will be an experiment. Some things won’t work. And that’s okay. But when they do, your students will be developing skills that last for a lifetime.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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