Online Group Projects to Build Community: Platform Options

As the fall semester bears down on us and many schools are finally admitting that yes, there will be a substantial amount of online courses (either fully, blended, hybrid, hyflex, etc), I imagine many faculty are experiencing some amount of panic about having to once again suddenly move their courses online. In particular, faculty are concerned about building community in their classes. Online courses can feel very isolating; without physical interaction before and after class, students may not feel connected to either you as the instructor, or their fellow students. One way to combat this and build community is to use team-based learning, where you have set groups working throughout a term on one or a series of projects. This can give students a small group of people that they can come to know well, even if they only work asynchronously with those students. Whether you are interested in adopting a team-based learning model, or just want to use the occasional group project, it’s a good idea to look at what options we have to do this online. On general approaches, I will direct you to this article by Stephanie Smith Budhai in Faculty Focus; here, let’s stick to recommendations on platforms for group or team learning.

First, a caveat: you don’t have to always dictate what platform your students use to collaborate. If all you care about is the end-project or outcomes, then let them use whatever platform they feel comfortable with. Give them options, certainly, but don’t dictate–let them communicate in whatever way is going to make it easy for them to work together, whether that’s on a social media platform, texting, WhatsApp, or something else. The main reason to ask students to use a particular platform is if you want to be able to check in on their work in progress and to see how things are developing. Each of the below options would allow you to do that (although students may need to grant you access!). Just be sure to explain why you’ve chosen this platform, take some time to train students in how to use it, and be clear on how and why you’ll be dropping in to check on their progress.

Let’s talk about several platforms you can use for group collaboration or team-based learning.

One obvious choice for online collaboration is to just use your Learning Management System (LMS)–meaning Blackboard, Canvas, Desire 2 Learn, Sakai, Moodle, or whatever platform that your university uses to manage the online presence of courses. Doing so has the advantage of keeping all course materials in one place, and that you as the instructor can easily see the work students use. Plus you can embed grading mechanisms directly into this system. But there is a serious disadvantage–these platforms are often very instructor-centered in their design and students often resist using them to communicate or plan their work for class. By ‘instructor-centered’ I mean that typically the professor controls the LMS–what tools are available, how groups get set up, etc. You can create a space for students to work–but they don’t get a ton of control over how that space looks or functions, and so you may find that they don’t really use it. If the goal is to create a space that students will actually use (so you can see their work), you may find one of the other platforms mentioned here better equipped than the standard LMS.

If you are interested in having groups work together synchronously, before, during or after a set class time, you can use the breakout rooms/groups available in many voice conference (VTC) systems. Zoom, for example, lets the host put students into breakout rooms where students can chat with each other, share their screens, and use a whiteboard. Many LMS’s have built in systems with a similar feature. The only problem is that typically, students can’t keep returning to their work within a breakout room. Once the breakout room ends, any work done their is lost unless students save it to their computer–they can’t keep returning to that room on their own, and if they did, the work would no longer be there. Plus, faculty have to decide to put students into the groups. So this is best used for small group discussions and shorter, one-time tasks, rather than semester-long collaboration.

Miro. This is a collaborative whiteboard space. If students need to do a lot of brainstorming or work on a long-term activity, they can use this to work on ideas, record notes, manage tasks, etc. They can use it synchronously in conjunction with a voice/video system like zoom, skype, etc, or use the comment/sticky note feature to work asynchronously. They will need to sign up for a free account, and they can get greater functionality with an education account, which is available to students (its a simple application process that typically gets approved very quickly).

Microsoft Teams. If you are more interested in the ability for students to be able to chat with each other, share and collaboratively edit documents/ppts, and have built in VTC, then you can’t really beat teams (Slack is another option here). You can set up a single team for your class, and then each student group can have a dedicated private channel (that only they and faculty can access) for their work. They can chat with each other, post documents, use wikis to build collective resources, and collaboratively edit documents–similar to google docs, changes one person makes can be seen in real time and automatically save for everyone. There’s a built in VTC called Meet so students can seamlessly move between synchronous and asynchronous work. There’s another app you can add in called Planner, which let’s students assign each other tasks and duedates. This is great for students working on joint papers or presentations, as they won’t have to email different versions of the document. It’s also much more student-centered than most LMS’s, as students can create the channels and add apps as needed–so faculty don’t have to set everything up themselves as they would in an LMS. Slack is another commonly used application, similar to Teams, that you can try.

Discord. If you just want students to be able to chat with each other privately and share links with each other (such as using google docs), and don’t care much about collaborating on files or being able to see each others’ work, then Discord may be a good choice. This is a voice and written chat social media application, free, that was originally used by gamer communities to connect with each other, but now is in widespread use, particularly for fan communities of content creators. It is also being used by educators, now. Like Teams, discord is organized by channels-text-only channels and voice-only channels. You have a server dedicated to your class, and then can set up (or allow students to set up) private text and voice channels for each group. Within the voice channels students can turn on video and share their screens as they work together. If students need to work on documents, they can do so in Google (see below), and then share the links within a discord channel dedicated to documents. More on using discord to teach here:

Google Drive/Docs/Sheets/Slides. If your need is less about giving students a set place to chat, and more about just collaborating on documents, then Google is a good choice. Students can set up and collaboratively edit word documents, spreadsheets, or slides, with the changes automatically saving to the cloud. Used in conjunction with a VTC or chat function (Google Hangouts being an option along with Discord), students can use this either synchronously or asynchronously. They can give you an invite to their documents (stored in the Google Drive) so you can see their work, and the comment feature would let you provide feedback. Plus, all you need to get started is a free google account. This has the added advantage of being useful for students when they are not working on group projects–it’s always a good idea to encourage students to work in a cloud system so there is less risk of losing their work. Many students will be very familiar with Google’s platforms already, so you will also probably have lower bars to entry. And finally, students can create the documents themselves–you don’t have to set up a server or a Team or anything else.

Persuall. If you are more interested in having students work together to analyze documents, try Perusall. This was developed in part by noted flipped classroom advocate Eric Mazur of Harvard, and is a great way to get students to actually read and think about texts. They can highlight different passages, ask each other questions, and answer questions from their peers. You need to work within copyright restrictions or use open-access resources, though, as to use full textbooks students would have to purchase them through Perusall.

As you can see, you have a lot of options (and many more that I did not cover here–please share your favorites in the comments). When making a decision, just keep several factors in mind:

  1. Do you need to see or comment on student work-in-progress? If not, give students 2-3 options but let them use whatever makes sense for communicating, sharing documents, etc.
  2. How will the groups function? Is group work going to occur mostly synchronously (during class, or with students meeting together via VTC), asynchronously (using message boards/chat, or collaborating on documents before a deadline), or a mixture? If they are only ever working together during class, synchronously, then you can use Breakout Rooms in your VTC. If asynchronous work is important, consider something with a robust chat or document collaboration feature, such as Teams, Perusall, Miro, or Discord + Google Docs.
  3. How much effort do you want to put into creating and managing the system that students use? The LMS system will require the most work from you, followed by Discord, Persuall, and Teams (initial set up only), with Miro and Google Docs being much more student-created.
  4. How long will the groups last? If you are using teams or groups that will work together throughout the term, then setting up a Team or Discord server makes sense. If these groups are constantly changing, maybe try Miro or Google.
  5. How important is community building to you? For students to feel more connected to each other, they need a space to work that they can adapt for their own purposes, and use to socialize as well as talk about the specific project. Microsoft Teams or Discord are going to be your best bet to create a more student-centered space where they can get to know each other, and not just get the work done.