Having students work in groups is the cornerstone of many courses because it helps students practice transferable skills, learn project management, think through complex problems, and build community. Here are a few things for you to think about if you're wading into the groupwork waters.
In an online course, selecting groups poses unique challenges because we cannot control student internet access, hardware, or software. There are also unique challenges when it comes to groups meeting due to differences in availability and time zones. To help with these challenges, let students know that group work will be part of the course in your welcome email and your course orientation materials. You may also want to send out a survey before the semester or in the first week that asks students about issues that impact group work.
If you're selecting groups, you may want to do a pre-class or first-week survey to get to know your students better and pair them according to strengths. You can also use a randomizer if you want a more hands-off approach. The drawback of this method is that it does take away student choice. The benefit is that this method helps students to get to know one another and build community beyond friend groups.
If you're letting students select the groups, you can also use a pre-class or first-week survey to allow them to describe themselves and an "ideal" group. You may even ask them for the name of one or two friends they would like to work with. This method does help students to tackle a major project with others that they feel comfortable with, however, this method can be dicey because it leaves the students who do not know anyone out in the winds.
Group roles. Group roles are important for group cohesion and accountability. To define roles, you can work with students to determine what roles would be appropriate or you can outline roles for your students. Roles should be logistical and may include a meeting organizer, note-taker, etc., so that students share equal responsibility for the content. Students should meet as a group to discuss different roles and perhaps come up with a group resume to help them determine what roles everyone should take on.
Group contracts. Once roles are decided, ask students author, co-author, or review a group contract that reinforces responsibilities and expectations.
Collaboration tool. You also should suggest at least one collaboration tool where students can host their meetings and share work. For meetings, this could be the video conferencing tool in your LMS, Zoom, MS Teams, of Google Hangout. When possible, you should select a meeting tool that has built-in work storage such as the LMS, MS Teams / MS OneDrive, or Google Hangout / Google Drive. This will make sharing a lot easier. Students may find their own preferred platform, but this way, you help the students who may not be as tech comfortable.
Check-ins. Remember to schedule check-ins with groups early and often. Ask students for their meetings times and a link to their meeting locations and let them know you'll be "popping in." You can randomly join to answer questions, share resources, or just chat. It's a great way to take the temperature of the room and help mediate any conflict.
Progress reporting. Design in moments to do progress reporting. Students should do one individually for their contributions and then the group as a whole should give one together. This helps students to stay accountable personally and collectively and lets them know that the line of communication with you is always open.
Submissions. You may want to ask students to submit the work collectively and tag their individual sections or have them submit them individually as well. This will allow you to grade the work as a whole and identify individual contributions.
Final reflections. Make a final reflection part of the assignment, so that students have an opportunity to unpack and feedback on the process. You may want to collect both group and individual responses to see if there are any discrepancies that may inform your grading. You can also ask the students to grade/rate their members based on a highly defined set of characteristics (perhaps the same language used in the group contract).
Grading. You can grade group work collectively or collectively and individually. If grading collectively, you need to be prepared to be more hands-on throughout the process so that students don't feel like they have to take on additional work if they find that one of their members has disengaged from the project or drop the course. Make the project flexible enough that it can change depending on needs. Another way to handle this potential issue is to grade the project as a whole and then individual contributions and average these together.
Group work can be a great way to assess student learning both formatively and summatively, but it can also be a pain point in an online course. Think through what you want to accomplish by incorporating group work and then design a structure that supports it.