The Challenge of Facilitating Group Work and Group Projects in the Online Mode

– Dr. Anita Chi-Kwan Lee –

When the Spring Semester of HKU started in the third week of January, no one could have expected the abrupt switch to the online mode of teaching and learning for the remaining weeks due to the acute health situation. Coincidentally, instructors and tutors had to complete the last few weeks of their Fall Semester courses in the online mode as a result of protests and clashes in different areas around town. Since mid November of 2019, teaching staff like myself have had the chance to start using software programmes to facilitate implementation of the online classes, the exercise of which then have proved helpful to the complete change to the online mode of course delivery and more extensive use of the online programmes in this semester. Here, I would like to write about my experiences and observations of the challenges in facilitating group work and group projects in the online mode.

In this semester, I am teaching two courses that have group work and group projects built in as assessment components in the course syllabus. One course is the core level-one course for majors and minors of the Gender Studies Programme, ‘Introduction to Gender Studies’, while the other one is a team-taught interdisciplinary Common Core level-one course, ‘Virtual Worlds, Real Bodies’. Even as the two courses are similar in the requirements of group work and group projects, they are different in a number of ways. Firstly, it is the class size, and, secondly, the size of the teaching team. I am teaching both the lectures and tutorials of the gender course with 36 students, while the common core course boasts five lecturers and tutors in the teaching team for a class of 115 students. The nature of the group work is also different in that the former focuses the discussion on cultural identity and social action, while the latter involves the use of VR technology in student assignments and group projects. Implementing online group work for both courses require strategies that differ as a result of the class size, but similar in the use of technology for teaching and learning.

As the gender course has been designed more like a seminar class, lectures are run like a big class discussion calling for student input, while tutorials also feature regular group work. For any class work to succeed, especially for online delivery, clear instructions and step-by-step guidelines could well be provided to students so that they know what to expect and how to execute the group work in class.

To prepare them for work in tutorial discussions, students of both courses have been initially asked to join in groups by letting them sign up in a shared google spreadsheet that is the class list, and then to identify their friends to form groups. These groups will also be the base of their group projects. In the first gender course tutorial with group work, students were shown the group discussion worksheet, and instructions given orally in the online meeting session. Then, they were instructed to come to an agreement in the use of one messenger app or social media for their group discussion. Near the end of the assigned time period for group discussion, they would have to report their findings both orally in the online meeting session and also by submitting the notes of the findings in the specific tutorial forum that was set up for the purpose. The plan has been devised so that the objective of running the course as discussion sessions, no matter large ones in lectures, or small ones in tutorials, could be more or less upheld.

In a Zoom training session, I have discovered an alternative for group discussions, the Breakout Rooms. Members in each Breakout Room can be assigned according to the confirmed grouping, or randomly, and assignment can be done either before or during the meeting. Everyone in a Breakout Room can share their materials for discussion and engage in discussions using the video, audio, and chat facilities, while the host, i.e. the teacher, can enter any Breakout Room at any time to see how the discussion goes.

Actual implementation of group discussions in tutorials of the two courses has taken a slightly different path. Students of the gender course are more at ease with group work and presentations in tutorials compared to students of the common core course. This could well be attributed to my frequent emphasis of the design of the gender course as a seminar with ample group discussions. As a result, the outcome of the group work in the gender course has been very encouraging, frequently illustrating the creativity of the students. Meanwhile, group work has to be adapted to allow different formats of presentations, due to the nature of the online tutorials. In general, students are asked to hold their group discussions and prepare for their presentations in the Breakout Rooms or in shorter Zoom sessions for specific groups. I would then enter the rooms one by one to answer their questions and give them advice when requested.

Notwithstanding, whether group discussions in tutorials would work as planned really depends on the collaboration of the students. On the first day that I tried to implement my plan for group discussion and project work, it took quite a while initially to get students into groups, so that the time left for group discussion was not as much as originally planned for. Students might also prefer using messenger apps or the chat function in online platforms, rather than the video and audio functions, to communicate amongst themselves. That is probably the case of the common core course. Then, tutorial presentations could more easily overrun than in face-to-face classes if time management was not strictly practiced. One more drawback for online live sessions of group discussions is the occasional instability of the WiFi link that have affected the work of a few students, while the issue of access of the online platforms could also be difficult to overcome for students staying in the Mainland.

Drawing from the experiences of the last semester, online group project presentations could be done in two ways. Firstly, it could be a live presentation with visuals including video clips, PowerPoint slides, or another presentation software. Secondly, it could be a video recording uploaded as a complete presentation. In both ways, the presentations are dissimilar to face-to-face presentations, in the same way that online class meetings are different from in-person classes.

Last but not least, there are still other options for group work in an online teaching and learning mode, like forum and chat functions in a variety of online T&L or messenger platforms. But smooth operation of all the technology for online T&L in such an emergency situation hinges upon the provision of both stable internet/WiFi access and appropriate hardware, in terms of not only the capacity of the device for the requirements of the relevant course assignments, supplied with the appropriate peripheral devices, but also the issue of whether every student has access to one device for their own use. The age-old question of the digital divide has again come to the fore in this context.