We all recognize classrooms are physical spaces that naturally foster learning, social interaction, and a sense of community for students. Students are assigned to classrooms and learn through their interactions with their teachers and peers. Most teachers intentionally organize space in their classrooms to facilitate the development of interpersonal skills and collaboration. Classroom norms are established to regulate behavior and inform students on how they are expected to treat others.
Recent events have uprooted teachers and students from their traditional classrooms and transplanted them into digital environments that are both unfamiliar and foreign. The “new norm” of online learning has left teachers and students to grapple with ways to mirror the classroom experience in a meaningful and effective way. And while web conferencing tools have made it easier to replicate elements of the classroom experience, the unexpected transition to remote learning has reinforced some myths about online learning. The idea that online learning eliminates the opportunities for students to work collaboratively is one myth, in particular, that needs some rethinking.
Group Work Reduces Feelings of Isolation
Assigning group work to online learners has its advantages, especially in uncertain times. Group assignments create opportunities for peer-to-peer interactions that will help them feel like they are part of a learning community. Moreover, students who feel a sense of community online are less likely to think about being isolated and are more likely to be engaged in their learning.
Students that struggle with social skills or feel socially isolated in the classroom may prefer online learning over traditional learning. For these students, group work done in an environment where they are more comfortable could help to develop social skills and build connections with their peers.
Choose Groups Wisely
One of the biggest challenges collaborative learning presents to teachers is determining which students are best suited to work together. In a traditional classroom, teachers have the opportunity to monitor student groups and if necessary, make changes to groups to ensure the best possible results. Online learning makes observing students more difficult and therefore it is important that teachers have a strong understanding of the social structure of their classroom and the underlying social dynamics that support it. Sociograms are graphs that plot the structure of interpersonal relations in a group situation and are ideal for determining student grouping.
These graphs use student responses to questions about who they feel connected to and the strength of those connections to create a visual representation of the social links that a student has. This information coupled with knowledge around a student’s academic strengths and weaknesses allows teachers to more objectively organize groups.
Examples to Implement in your Virtual Classroom
Implementing collaborative learning into the classroom is no simple task. And for many, the idea of students working together remotely is even more daunting. However, just like web conferencing tools have made it possible for teachers and students to come together while being forced apart, we can look at other technology that can drive collaboration.
Before you venture into the world of online collaboration with your students there are some real-world issues that you will want to ask yourself about/consider. First, it is important to consider technology disparities between your students. You will need to know what your students do and do not have access to before you assign them to groups. It’s also necessary to consider financial and housing disparities. Some students may not want their classmates to see where or how they live during a web conference. Finally, you will want to take some time to create with your students a set of agreed-upon rules that students will follow when working together online.
Here are a couple of examples of group projects that use Google Docs and Slides, and Sheets so students can work together remotely. I’m a former history teacher so some of these are projects that I often used in my teaching. I also recommend going to Google Docs and looking through their set of templates. They have a large selection of templates that you can simply copy and then share with your students. I have included my favorites in the list below.
Business Brochure using Google Docs
Caption/Label This! using Google Slides
Comic Book Template using Google Slides
Copy and Paste Quiz using Google Docs
Historical Text Messages using Google Sheets
Historical Tweets using Google Sheets
Introduce Your Pet using Google Docs
Newsletter using Google Docs
Science Lab Report using Google Docs
Share Your Favorite Recipe using Google Docs
Newspaper using Google Docs