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Does online learning make the group assignment unfair?

Whether it’s the library, the lab, or a local coffee shop, meeting with classmates to finish a project has never been easy. Now, with social distancing restrictions requiring us to stay apart, group projects seem almost impossible. Coordinating and communicating with classmates to complete a fully realized project in its analysis and output is difficult without meeting in person.

How can instructors reasonably assign a group project knowing these limitations? While online grading tools make it easier to grade a group, finding ways to bridge students’ communication gap can be challenging.

The basics of group assignments

Group assignments are loved by some and despised by others. It’s easier for instructors to monitor whether students are pulling their weight in a regular classroom setting.

However, now that supervision has been removed from the equation, instructors ask if remote learning has made the group assignment unfair. The simple answer is that they may never have been fair.

A group assignment replicates future situations students might find themselves in later in their life. Whether it’s in their careers, relationships, or otherwise, the theory behind group projects is well-intentioned in its attempt to train students on collaboration and communication.

However, the outcome hasn’t always been a positive learning experience.

In a professional setting, employees are paid to work together on a project and are motivated to maintain mutual investments. This investment is their job, their livelihood. There are always outliers who aren’t as invested in achieving the same goal or maintaining good education grades.

In a perfect world, each student would take on equal parts of the project. In reality, we often see a couple of members carrying the entire weight of the party.

Even though students face challenges with group projects, these assignments are still a valuable learning tool. They must stay included in the curriculum to teach students teamwork, perseverance, and patience.

But with distance learning and the already existing challenges of group work not going away, where do we go from here?

Student smiling and waving in a video call

Distance learning is not the end of group assignments

Like most aspects of our lives, social distancing measures affect how we complete tasks but don’t necessarily make them impossible or unfair. Just different.

In the case of group assignments, which weren’t necessarily perfect models, to begin with, navigating a solution is less complicated than it may seem. We’re fortunate to live in the age of technology, where apps like Zoom and Google Hangouts can connect dozens of students in an instant. And thanks to free programs, like Google Docs, most students have access to endless online learning resources and writing tools. These tools alone help level the playing field for the group assignment.

Applications and programs that connect students digitally maintain communication and give them a platform to work together are the basis for a successful project.

As the instructor, your responsibility is to make sure students are motivated to work together and utilize these remote learning tools to complete the task at hand. As long as there’s no physical component to the project and all of your students have access to the right materials, completing and participating in a group assignment can still be accomplished from each students’ homes’ comfort.

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How to alter group assignments for remote learning

As we mentioned previously, the group assignment model was never perfect. However, distance education may be the right time to reshape it. Here are some ways you can alter group projects to suit remote learning:

  • Split the assignment: Assign individual sections of the project to each student. This way, they have to complete their part to participate in the group aspect of the project. If one student finishes their portion early, they can help their group partners, but only if they want to.
  • Encourage creativity: Instead of standard group presentations, have the students record a video call presenting their topic. Students can record a skit, a song, or a formal verbal presentation where each student takes turns talking. Give bonus points for creativity.
  • Give your students options: Allow your students to choose how they’d like to complete their project and which option best suits their learning style as a group. Give each group three project types to choose from when the project is assigned. That way, the students can collaborate on which medium they think is best, making them more invested in the project overall.
  • Don’t force it: Allow students to turn down the group assignment and opt for an individual project instead. Group project settings can be overwhelming for students, especially those who struggle with mental health or anxiety issues. With the drastic shift from classroom learning to distance education, many students are feeling anxious or overwhelmed. Before assigning a group project, ask your students whether they would like to work alone or in a group. You can tailor the individual assignments from there.
Student working at a desk with a notebook and computer

How learning apps can benefit online learning

Online learning tools, like Crowdmark, allow teachers to build and assign group projects to their students. Using a dedicated program like Crowdmark offers students the same resources, which evens the playing field.

As long as all of your students have access to an internet connection and a device that supports web browsing or applications, using Crowdmark is the best way to organize your students. Using this platform, students can collaborate on assignments, submit their projects, and see their grades all in one space.

Crowdmark also allows teachers to track their students’ progress individually and as a group, making it easy for instructors to identify which students need special assistance and benefit from more challenging assignments.

Using the analytic function of Crowdmark, you, as an instructor, can monitor your class’s learning trends and match students for projects based on their success rate and participation. You also have the option to allow students to choose their project partners.

Crowdmark gives instructors a platform to assign projects, grade exams, and submit meaningful feedback, all in one place.

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