Considerations in designing online collaborative tasks
It is important to emphasise the primacy of the task in academic online environments. Because academic online communities do not usually have a social raison d’être, the glue that binds must be provided by the tasks the members agree to do.
Because working asynchronously involves slow response times and frequently a lack of non-verbal information, the briefs for online tasks need to be absolutely explicit about a large number of variables. Just to mention a few in no particular order:
- the optimal group size for completing the task
- the duration of the task
- resources that are available for the task
- how groups are composed
- support that will be provided for the task
- the required outputs/products
- the required formats of the products and when/where/how they should be submitted
- the expected amount of time that individuals will need to spend on the task
- the expected frequency of logins required for the task
- milestones that may need to be completed along the way
- the roles that will need to be performed within the groups
- responsibilities of individuals within the groups
- how individuals and the group will be assessed
You can probably add several more to this list.
One of the biggest problems that online groups will face is getting themselves organised quickly. Online groups need support with this. They need clear advice about roles, responsibilities and timelines.
It can help the organisational side of things if groups can meet synchronously, either face-to-face or using text chat or audio-visual web conferencing. This can facilitate initial brainstorming, quick decisions, or rapid changes of direction. Another benefit is that requests and promises made of and by participants in them are less easily ignored than messages in online forums or email. As well, they contain more of the non-verbal, affective, manifestations of support, encouragement and approval that are so necessary to effective group functioning. Students will need help and support to do this.
It would be a mistake to assume that because groups can meet synchronously that they will do so, or that students will know how to use this ability to good effect. They will need advice about how to effectively and efficiently ‘blend’ their asynchronous and synchronous meetings.
Synchronous communications are not without their problems. You may encounter participants whose access is blocked by firewalls, bandwidth problems, and the like. As with face-to-face meetings, not everyone may be able to attend synchronous online meetings, especially where different time-zones are involved. This raises important issues of inclusion of all group members. Access needs to be carefully managed. And a new tool requires induction and training.