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Collaborative learning is a hallmark of adult education and a popular instructional strategy (Payne & Monk-Turner, 2006; Smith, 2005). For over a decade, as an educator of adult learners, I have integrated group work into courses. Every course requires some level of collaborative work. Group projects require the contribution and evaluation from all group members and often reflect a collective grade at the end of the project. The feedback from students is generally positive. When the students express dissatisfaction with the collaborative experience, I endeavor to make adjustments to address these potential barriers to collaboration.
Recently, this perspective of group projects was challenged when I experienced online group projects as a student. I completed an Education Specialist degree online in which group projects were often part of the course requirements. While my experience as a student with group projects was generally favorable, the group projects afforded a framework to reflect critically on group projects from a student perspective.
In designing online group projects, instructors should not ignore the inherent challenges and barriers to effective collaborative work. The intentional design of online group projects, focused at minimizing the challenges, fosters the development of collaborative skills.
Benefits of Group Projects
Collaboration "encourages students to work together as they apply course material to answer questions, solve problems, or create a product" (Colbeck, Campbell, & Bjorklund, 2000, p. 61). Collaborative groups develop real-world skills such as interpersonal, critical thinking, and problem solving skills (Underwood, 2003; Yazici, 2004). Corporations, businesses, and organizations consider these skills essential to students preparing to compete in a global market and economy (Banerji, 2007; Hanson, 2006). In a study of 94 undergraduate business students, Yazici (2004) reported how collaborative instructional strategies prepared students with skills essential to solve real-world problems. "The new global collaborative work environment requires motivated, self-confident critical thinkers who can communicate, manage, and make rational decisions" (Yazici, 2004, p. 117). For the adult learner who may hold a professional position, collaborative group work sharpens current skills.
Collaborative group projects offer benefits beyond preparing students for future jobs. Group projects promote a supportive learning environment which is especially important to online students (Goold, Augar, & Farmer, 2006; Morgan, Cameron, & Williams, 2009). In online courses, distance and the lack of visual and verbal cues may create a sense of isolation for students (Ventor, 2003). Collaborative dialogue provides communication and interaction needed to reduce isolation and build dynamic group engagement (Paulus, 2005).
Collaborative groups also develop communication skills, foster academic achievement, improve persistence in college, and promote positive attitudes
about learning (Colbeck, Campbell, & Bjorklund, 2000).
Collaborative learning enables students to work together to create a product of substance and develop problem solving and questioning skills (Payne & Monk-Turner, 2006). Rovai and Barnum (2003) also emphasize the benefit of collaborative groups in promoting active learning. Collaboration engages students in learning by doing rather than passively listening.
Scholars advocate the benefits of collaborative learning and provide strategies for achieving these benefits. Successful collaborative groups demonstrate interpersonal skills (Colbeck, Campbell, & Bjorklund, 2000), promote positive …