Virtual Group Work: It Can Be Done!

Sarah Wendorf shares several personal strategies for how she successfully transferred group work from a face-to-face course into a virtual format.
Home Office Video Conference with casual clothing

Virtual Group Work: It Can Be Done!

A personal teaching reflection by Sarah Wendorf, Instructional Designer + Contract Faculty, Cambrian College

Home Office Video Conference with casual clothing

I am currently teaching a copywriting course for our Graphic Design program and would like to share how I have successfully transferred group work from a face-to-face course into a virtual format.

Flipped Classroom Approach

When I was designing my course for a new virtual delivery, I foundationally wanted to make our live Zoom classes as interactive as possible. This meant that I had to first fundamentally change the way I deliver content to students.

Based on the student feedback I received from last year’s face-to-face delivery I started by simplifying my course from the way it was designed in Moodle to the lessons and assessments. As part of this course “clean-up”, I also streamlined the delivery of content. This becomes important when I discuss the virtual group work set up below.

Using Nearpod and Google Slides, I have designed my lessons to be interactive explorations of the course concepts and learning outcomes. Students participate in the Nearpod lessons before attending the live Zoom classes. You may know this as a “flipped classroom” approach. By frontloading the course content prior to our live classes, I am able to focus the live classes exclusively on social discussions.

Real-World Project via Simulation

I also believe in real-world hands-on learning where students can practice skills in a safe environment to prepare for future employment. My teaching philosophy around this is that as the instructor, I see myself as the facilitator in a mentorship model. I explain to students on the first day of class that we must begin to practice real-world skills and to pretend like this class is our workplace and fellow students are our work colleagues. With this framing, I am the manager and mentor and they are the employees who are given the training, tools, and framework to complete their work. Their assignments are set up as projects that they would encounter in a real workplace.

Screenshot of virtual office slide explaining classroom expectations

By approaching my course in this light, I am able to prepare the students for working in groups as they would work with their colleagues in their careers. If questions or concerns arise, we discuss these as we would mediate discussions amongst co-workers in an office environment.

In order to set the students up with real-world practice, I create a whole-semester simulated project where they work with real clients who own fictional businesses. I have chosen a simulation rather than working with real businesses because of the complexities around copyright and the shared belief that students should be paid for doing real work for real companies. Since this course is not set up as a paid co-op or internship, I wanted to help prepare students for these real working relationships in a way where I can respect graphic designers who provide paid work but still make it feel relevant and as real as possible.

Screenshot of client information such as contact information, goals, needs, and target audiences

For this simulation I ask fellow colleagues to be part of my course. I approach four people to be clients in my course and have them come up with their own fictional business. This year we have a daycare, a wilderness lodge, a bakery, and a scuba diving shop. The clients provide some basic information about their “business” such as their needs and goals, and commit to meeting with the students once at the beginning of the semester and once at the end of the semester.

Assembling & Preparing the Teams

At the beginning of the semester, I share with the students the set up of the course and how the client-designer project will work. I present the students with their four choices of clients and have them rank their choices on a Padlet. From there, I assemble them into teams based on their top choices. I refer to the groups as “teams” to help them see themselves as working together toward a common goal. I provide them with a helpful short video that explains teamwork and the stages of group formation. When they see themselves going through the stages of forming, storming, norming, and performing, they can identify with that, talk about it as a team, and move through the stages knowing that conflict, for example, is a natural and necessary step in the process.

Screenshot of a Padlet with four columns asking students to rank their choices

Assigning Team Roles

The first “team” assignment in the course has the students working together collaboratively on a Google Doc to come up with a team name (aka the name of their graphic design firm) and a team logo. They also must choose individual roles within the group such as Team Planner (one who arranges and hosts meetings), a Team Recorder (who takes notes and manages the shared document), an Art Director (who ensures consistency in the branding), and a Copy Director (who reviews the shared document for proper spelling, grammar, etc,). The teams also choose a mutually agreed upon date and time to meet to work on their project together. For some teams, this happens after the live Zoom class, and for others, it is another day of the week.

Screenshot of group set up including team roles, meeting schedule, and task list

After setting themselves up as a design firm, the teams then get to work on a branding document for their client. This includes the creation of a logo, colour scheme, tagline, personality, visuals, fonts, and persona profiles for their client’s business. I dedicate the majority of our live Zoom classes to this collaborative work using Zoom breakout rooms. I create the breakout rooms in my Zoom account before the class begins and then place students into the rooms during the live class. I create four shared Google Docs and add the links to my Moodle course using Moodle Group settings. After creating groups, I restrict access to the Google Doc link based on the group. If a student belongs to a certain group, they can access the link and freely edit the document. As the instructor, I am able to access all of the shared documents and check up on their work to ensure they are on the right track.

Screenshot of how groups are set up in Moodle with permissions

Active (Timed) Learning on Zoom

In the weekly live Zoom sessions, students are working with their teams in breakout rooms. I provide them with a set of instructions that focuses their time together. They are given tasks with time limits and must find ways to work together to achieve the tasks in the given time frame. I create these instructions prior to each live Zoom class using Google Docs and grant the permissions so that anyone with the link can edit the document. Once they have entered their breakout rooms, I give them their Google Doc to work from. Each week focuses on a new task so I provide new Google Docs so they can apply their learning.

screenshot of breakout room instructions with tasks and times assigned

Assigning Tasks for Accountability

If they are required to work together on a future assignment, I ask them to write down a task list before they leave their live Zoom class. This task list has the headings “Who/Does What/By When/Status” so they can fairly distribute and assign tasks to each member of the group and hold each other accountable for completing their portion of the work. Similar to how a group of colleagues would distribute tasks on a project where each person has their role in the project and their tasks to complete.

All of this to say, the way that I am able to dedicate this amount of time to group work and group dynamics in this course is through a flipped classroom approach (ie: giving students the lessons asynchronously) so we can spend our valuable live class time together in discussion, problem-solving, generating ideas, and getting to work.

Backward Course Design

I exclusively teach to my assessments using backwards design. This means that I spend the majority of my time designing detailed assessments with rubrics and checklists to find ways for students to demonstrate that they have met the learning outcomes. Then, I spend the remaining time determining how I can teach students to be successful in those assessments. By taking out all the extra information in my course that doesn’t serve to help them be successful on the assessments, I can spend more time with them in live discussions and practising their skills for the assessments.

Sample checklist from a course using good/better/best approach
Checklist format adapted from Jessica O'Reilly
Screenshot of a detailed rubric

Community of Inquiry Framework

Considering the Community of Inquiry Framework where a community of individuals work collaboratively to construct meaning in their learning, I try to incorporate the social, cognitive, and teaching presence in ways where students can learn from all three domains.

  • Socially, they are building their teams over many weeks and through various collaborative activities.
  • Cognitively they are constructing their own meaning through a real-world simulation and critically thinking about what is best for their client.
  • I bring my teaching presence in through the interactive asynchronous lessons, and through the design of the breakout room activities.

Their time together in breakout rooms is meaningful, social, and contextual to the end goal which is to produce high-quality samples of work for their client. This is an experience they will encounter in their careers as graphic designers and one that will prepare them for managing projects and working collaboratively in a team environment.

Community of Inquiry Framework, source: Athabasca University
Image source: Athabasca University

Student Feedback

Based on my student feedback, I am learning that the group work is their favourite part of this course and I am seeing how the conscious set up of this course through the lens of an office environment with colleagues working on real-world projects is valued and appreciated. They like that they are practising real-world skills with their peers and one student has even mentioned in a mid-semester feedback form that it “feels like I’m getting my money’s worth” in the preparation for when they have to begin designing concepts for clients. I am also seeing this in the weekly attendance where nearly all students continue to attend class.

Share Your Successes

Thank you for reading my personal reflection. As this is my own experience, I would love to hear from you. Tell us on our Teachers’ Corner Padlet what is working for you in your virtual class. What successes have you had with virtual group work? What have been your challenges? How do you build social, cognitive, and teaching presence in your virtual class?

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