By Loren Germann-McClain
Academic Advisor, School of STEM, APUS
Here at American Public University System, we understand many of our students must find that perfect balance of work, school and life. Working on your education at a distance comes with its own set of challenges that you must overcome in order to succeed academically. Those challenges include managing your time wisely and keeping yourself motivated to work hard.
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In the midst of this coronavirus pandemic that has people practicing social distancing, you may find yourself participating in an online group project. The very idea of group projects can be daunting to some people.
But when that group project is placed in an online environment, a unique set of obstacles rears its head. These obstacles can include technical issues such as working in an environment without high bandwidth or a strong internet connection that is needed to support your program or presentation.
They may also include the lack of a particular set of technical skills to ensure you can participate and fully engage in an online classroom. You do not need a lot of technical know-how to have an online education, but the smaller pieces are fundamentally important for your success.
Even the minor challenges can spark fear about how the group project will affect your grade. Similarly, the final outcome of a group project, when it’s for your job, also affects how your manager views your job performance.
However, there are five ways to create a more successful group dynamic and put an online group project on the right track to success.
#1: Choose the Right Group Members for an Online Group Project
Think about what characteristics you like in your peers or co-workers; what makes them a good team player? Aim to choose group members with people you feel have those same qualities.
Are you a freshman and you know you have upperclassmen in your course? Don’t be afraid to ask to join their group; you can benefit from the wisdom and practice they’ve had in previous courses. They may even have participated in a group project before.
Take into consideration that you will be operating under an incomplete understanding of your peers’ personalities. You can only gather so much information based on their forum work.
#2: Pay Attention to Members’ Schedules
When possible, try to choose group members who are on similar schedules as you. Consider trying to find classmates who are in the same time zone as yourself; this is where those introduction forum posts come in handy.
Don’t be afraid to review them to see if there is someone whose schedule aligns with yours. If group members are assigned to you, be mindful and courteous of other people’s time zones. Make allowances for scheduling differences; do not expect everyone to be online at the same time.
#3: Create Thorough Plans for the Group Project
Before you start your group project, begin with setting the groundwork early. Be proactive, rather than reactive.
As all of you are online learners, you know how valuable your time is, so do not let it go to waste. Figure out what documents should be acquired and areas of research you need to complete, in addition to the assignments that are required in your project. Align your group’s roles and tasks with each other’s strengths and interests accordingly.
Do not be afraid to break down the content into more manageable pieces. Also, do not try to consume large chunks of research material in a short amount of time.
#4: Remember that the Key to Success Is Communication
Create a forum (or any other form of communication that is comfortable for all parties) to use for communication. Regular communication will keep everyone accountable for their part of the group project and will reveal hidden performance issues.
Be sure to check in before each part of the group project is done. Someone may need help on a portion of the project. Help them out when possible; it’s a group effort, not a solo project.
#5: Be Mindful that Honesty Is the Best Policy
Does your project have a “peer evaluation” element? If so, be honest but respectful about your group members’ participation in your project.
Peer evaluations are often used to ensure individual accountability. However, there may be times when a peer goes missing or fails to contribute a portion of their project on time, if at all.
If this situation happens, reach out to your instructor as soon as possible. Providing regular group updates is useful for tracking the progress made in your project as well as immediate concerns and questions.
An Online Group Project Is Challenging, But It Teaches You Valuable Real-World Skills
It is true that group projects are very challenging. However, they build your knowledge by simulating real-life work experiences.
You will learn valuable skills in the process; group projects are not assigned just to be busy work. The communication skills and the group dynamics you discover will provide you with information that will carry on long after your course ends.
Any industry field is likely to require a group project to be done and your participation in some capacity. By participating in a school group project, you’ll acquire a sense of what it feels like to work on and complete a collaborative project. In addition, working on an online group project helps you build the experience you need to communicate effectively with people of different working styles, learning styles and life perspectives.
About the Author
Loren Germann-McClain is currently in her second year as an Academic Advisor with the School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) at American Public University System. She holds a M.A. in English – Rhetoric and Composition from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, as well as an M.A. in English Literature from Southern New Hampshire University.
Loren is also an instructor for Mental Health First Aid USA and previously worked in Human Resources and Public Relations at a public library in Indiana. She has earned grants to help develop coding programs for school-age children and develop free, extracurricular activities to help align with the Indiana State standards for computer science, technology, and coding. Her work has helped empower Hoosier students to be equipped with the critical and computational problem-solving skills they will need in order to succeed in a digitally powered and ever-evolving world.