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When asked about online group projects, the vast majority of students state emphatically that they don’t like working in groups. The primary reason for most students is that group work is not equitable and one or two students end up doing all the tasks. Another consideration is the difficulty in getting all group members together to discuss the project because most online classes include students in multiple time zones. Another challenge is communicating online, which has both advantages and disadvantages.

One advantage of communicating online is convenience; students can check in, post ideas, respond to others, and share files anytime during the day or night that suits individual schedules. The corresponding disadvantage is having to wait for all group members to post ideas or responses to questions, completed tasks, and suggestions for changes. In online group work, waiting for responses from group members holds up everyone’s ability to get work done in a timely manner.

One unique disadvantage of online versus face-to-face groups is that ignoring communications is easier online. When a group is meeting together face-to-face, it’s much more difficult to look fellow group members in the eyes and admit that you have not completed the work in time for the meeting. In online groups, it is easier to ignore emails from fellow group members and miss deadlines because there is no immediate accountability such as ‘in your face” displeasure, disappointment, and even anger that happens in face-to-face communications. Receiving an angry email about an incomplete assigned task doesn’t have the same effect as looking someone in the face while they express resentment about having to pick up the slack because someone didn’t do their part of the work.

Although there are challenges to online group projects, many classes require at least one such assignment. The best ways to handle these projects are to maintain a positive attitude and be prepared to meet the challenges. Going into a group project with a positive attitude can help others in the group muster some enthusiasm as well. Here are some tips for navigating the process so the group ends up with a successful project.

  1. Choose a coordinator who will be responsible for initial communications among the group members and setting up the first meeting to discuss the assignment. The group should meet online together at least once a week for check-ins and updates.
  2. Create a communication plan. Group members should note a preferred method of communication (email, group discussion area, text chat, instant messenger, conference calls, etc.) and time zones.
  3. List tasks and group roles required to complete the project. Together, the group should identify which person will undertake each task.
  4. Set deadlines and specific check-in dates for each part of the project. Leave a “cushion” of a few days between the scheduled completion of the project and the due date.
  5. Don’t be afraid to contact the professor if someone is not responding to communications or is missing due dates

Group projects in face-to-face classes are challenging, but the unique medium of online communication makes online group work even more so. Getting started immediately and making a plan for tasks and communication can help diminish some of the difficulties of completing an online group project. When a group member drops off the radar and misses meetings, ignores communications, or does not complete work on time, the other group members must figure out how to get that work done. The group coordinator should contact the professor immediately upon a missed deadline so that the group can be restructured or otherwise advised about how to proceed. The key to any group project, and especially one that is completely online, is to make a schedule and meet due dates on time. Also stay in contact with the professor as needed to ensure all group members are doing their share of the work and that no one group member is taking on more than his or her share. Group projects can be successfully completed without undue stress if the lines of communication are kept open.