Learning activities that engage students in small group or team projects have become a component in many college and university courses. From science and engineering to economics and art history, many instructors value the dynamic role that group activities can add to student learning. At this time, however, few instructors are capitalizing on the communication technologies that students are using in their everyday lives (e.g., cell phones, text messages, and the Internet) to enhance the learning and effectiveness of student teams.

While these, and other, technologies have dramatically changed how students communicate with one another outside the classroom, most college courses continue to rely only on conventional class sessions and small group meetings for promoting interactions among members of learning teams. By integrating technologies into group activities and assignments, instructors can effectively guide students in the appropriate use of technology for enhancing team learning.  Even with limited guidance, student teams can apply technologies that improve interpersonal communications, add flexibility to student schedules, increase student involvement in the development of team products, make team processes more efficient, and/or document group interactions. In addition, the introduction of technologies into team projects assists students in developing valuable skills they can use in work environments where collaborative projects are often the norm.

Here are eight examples of how technologies can facilitate any course’s small group or team activities:

1. SHARED ONLINE CALENDARS FOR SCHEDULING TEAM EVENTS. Arranging meetings (either online or in person) and managing the development of group products can be challenging for college students who have conflicting schedules.  Shared online calendars offer a solution by helping student teams stay organized and overcome the challenges of trying to find times when everyone in a group is available to work on the team assignments. Students can find free online calendars from such services as Calendars.net, YahooGroups, Visto, or SuperCalendar. These calendars will give students the tools to post a timeline of deliverable products for the project (e.g., draft one of the introduction to be complete by Ron on March 26th), or to share their weekly schedules in order to more efficiently set team meetings (e.g., Landon and Jae Hoon are busy on Wednesday afternoons so we shouldn’t schedule team activities on those days). Shared online calendars can also be useful for the entire class.  If you do not have a calendar feature already available through the college you may want to sign up for one of these free services to share information (e.g., due dates for class assignments, your office hours, times for student presentations) with students throughout the semester.  

2. INSTANT MESSAGES FOR DISCUSSING PROJECT TASKS.  Instant messenger (IM) programs offer students a valuable tool for communicating with other project team members.  Instant messenger programs typically run on student computers and offer real-time text-based discussion tools.  Unlike email, instant messenger programs keep a list of people and report which ones are presently online and available to chat.  When people from a project team are online, they can send messages to each other that will be delivered instantaneously. From quick questions to sharing files, IM programs can add real-time communications options to a project team.  In addition, with newer IM programs (e.g., Trillian, Vista, Odigo, Easy Message) students can now communicate with other group members no matter which IM software they use (i.e., students who use ICQ instant messenger software can communicate with other students who use AIM or Yahoo). The advantages of instant messages – over email, chat rooms, or discussion boards – are the privacy, real-time interaction, and ease of communication.

3. EMAIL FOR EXCHANGING DRAFT DOCUMENTS AND OTHER FILES. Students can easily share draft documents and other files with group members by attaching files to emails.  From Word files to PowerPoint presentations, nearly any files that students create for their team assignments can be exchanged with other team members using email.  When sharing draft documents via email, students often find it useful to create a sequence (or chain) of editors.  For instance, after creating the initial draft document, Rebecca may email it to Julie for her comments and edits.  In her email, Rebecca would then indicate that upon completing her review, Julie should send the next draft of the document to Sandy, and then Sandy’s draft would go on to Troy who will submit the final paper to the instructor. Much like a chain letter, in this manner email can be used to effectively and systematically to organize the work of student teams.

4. MICROSOFT WORD FOR TRACKING CHANGES, EDITS, AND COMMENTS.  Microsoft Word has many tools for assisting teams in developing their assignments. By using the “track changes” feature of Word (under Tools), students can share draft documents and the software will track the changes (i.e., additions, deletions, edits) made by each group member, illustrating the individual changes to the document with different colors for each reviewer.  This tool can be quite valuable to students as they work on collaborative class assignments.  In addition, instructors can benefit from the color-coded changes when evaluating the individual contributions of group members.

In addition, the “merge documents” tools of Microsoft Word can be of value when student teams are working on group assignments.  The “merge documents” feature allows for multiple versions of the same file (e.g., Roger’s comments and edits on the draft paper, along with Jan’s and Jac’s comments) to be combined together into a new document. This feature can be of great value when several group members each offer additions, subtractions, or edits to a project document and then want all of those edits to be merged into a final document for the instructor.  For more information on how to use these and other tools in Microsoft Word you can visit http://office.microsoft.com.

5. CHAT ROOMS FOR HAVING REAL-TIME TEAM DISCUSSIONS. Chat rooms provide student teams with the ability to have “real time” discussions regarding team projects in a completely online format.  From discussing the requirements of an assignment to debating the best presentation format, the conversations students have in a chat room with other group members can be of value and extend the learning beyond the boundaries of the classroom or campus.  As a benefit, most chat rooms will also provide transcripts of the team discussions that group members may later use in the development of project documents.  At colleges and universities using course management systems (e.g., BlackBoard, WebCT, eCollege) students will have access to chat rooms through the course area. Other free chat rooms are available to students through services such as ICQ, YahooGroups, TalkCity, and MSN.

6. YAHOOGROUPS FOR MAINTAINING SHARED FILES WITHIN A SMALL GROUP. A variety of group communication tools (such as file sharing, discussion boards, chat rooms, and shared calendars) are available to students through the YahooGroups website at no cost. As a result, it is often useful to encourage student teams to use these resources in both managing their group processes as well as developing team assignments. Tools like YahooGroups can also provide teams with a storage place for draft documents and other project files so students with Internet access can effectively share resources with group members at any time and from any place. If your college or university doesn’t currently offer an online course management system (e.g., BlackBoard, WebCT, eCollege) then the development of YahooGroups area for your courses can be a valuable tool as well.  For more information on YahooGroups you can visit http://groups.yahoo.com

7. DESKTOP VIDEO-CONFERENCES FOR COMMUNICATING WITH OFF-CAMPUS STUDENTS.  When group members can’t meet face-to-face on campus, desktop video-conferences can offer a convenient tool for helping student teams hold meetings and share information.  Although most desktop video-conferencing systems require broadband Internet access (e.g., DSL, Cable modem), the cost and technology skills required to have online video-conferences has been reduced significantly in recent years. Many desktop video systems are now available for less than $50.  For an excellent article with more information on effective strategies for using video-conferences in your courses you can visit http://www.fi.edu/fellows/fellow6/nov98/index.

8. CELL PHONES FOR HOSTING TEAM CONFERENCE CALLS.  Cell phones are a technology that most students use everyday in their personal lives, and with conveniences such as 3-way calling and text messages the modern cell phones can offer student teams valuable tools for communicating with one another. Group conference calls, for example, can offer student teams the flexibility and conveniences often necessary to ensure that all group members can adequately participate in the development of team products.  Using the 3-way calling features built into many modern cell phones (or even more sophisticated conference calling plans for additional participants in the conference call), student teams can effectively hold meetings and make import team decisions at almost any time.

A second useful tool available with many cell phones is text messaging. Similar to the real-time communication tools of instant messenger programs on the computer, text messages are a popular tool for students to communicate using text with a cell phone. These typically short text messages often do not cost as much as telephone calls and can be sent to either one or multiple cell phone users.  For student teams these tools can provide another technique for communicating with one another outside of the traditional classroom, and for instructors many cell phone providers will offer Internet based tools for sending text messages to cell phones if you do not feel comfortable writing the message using your cell phone. 

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As you can see, today’s technologies offer student groups the flexibility that is often necessary to work effectively as a team.  In creating team assignments it can therefore be helpful to integrate the technologies that many students commonly use outside of the classroom into their group projects.  For example, when assigning teams for a course project you may want to require that each team start a YahooGroups area where they can share their calendars, distribute files, and have online discussions.  You may even want each group to provide you with access to the YahooGroups area so you can monitor their progress.  As another option, you may want to hold office hours once a week in an online chat room in order to encourage students in the class to utilize similar technologies in their studies.  Not only will online office hours add flexibility to your schedule, but it may give students who have to work off-campus additional opportunities to interact with you throughout the semester.

The valuable tools included in Microsoft Word can also become part of your everyday teaching routine.  From providing feedback on papers using the “track changes” feature to requesting that small groups “merge” their draft documents together before submitting them, you can promote the use of technology among your students.  Many students will value the opportunity to apply technology to their efforts in college courses. The integration of technologies into small group activities can help students stay organized, share files, manage time, communicate with group members, document group processes, submit team products, and/or create comprehensive online portfolios. These are great skills for succeeding in college and for excelling in the technology-oriented work world our students will soon be entering.

–Ryan Watkins, Faculty, Educational Technology Leadership, George Washington University, D.C.

Ryan Watkins is an associate professor at the George Washington University in Washington DC. He is an author of the books 75 E-learning Activities: Making online courses interactive and E-learning Companion: A learner’s guide to online success, as well as several other books and articles on distance education, needs assessment, strategic planning, and performance improvement.  In addition, Ryan was recently a visiting scholar (IPA) with the National Science Foundation.

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