Online collaboration is becoming an ever more prevalent and feasible option in education. As technological options and distance teaching methods improve, the value of using online platforms to teach, learn and collaborate is becoming increasingly recognised. This paper examines and reflects on its place and use in creative education. Using video-conferencing software Zoom, these recordings and accompanying written reflections discuss some problems, considerations and opportunities for online collaborative learning that have been encountered by the writers of this article. These reflections range from technological considerations to the socio-emotional impact of online work, often discovering places that the two may conjoin. The findings imply that online group work is a radical change in the student environment, with many new conventions, expectations and etiquettes to adopt.
Published on 21st May 2019 | Written by Ben Smart, Elizabeth Ransom, Jim Le Fevre, Francesca Sheldon, Madeline Jones and Orande Mensink | Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash
Distance education is nothing new. In 1969 the British Open University opened their ‘doors’ (Open University, s.d.). But even from 1877 the St. Andrews University in Scotland offered an external higher education degree in arts (University of St. Andrews, s.d.).
Niper (1989) described three generations of distance education:
- correspondence teaching
- multimedia teaching, where using print is integrated with broadcast media an to some degree computers
- interactive communication technologies. (Guri, 2005: 467)
The PGCert in Creative Education run by the University for the Creative Arts (UCA) in Farnham, UK, which all writers of this article/all participants of this video are following, could be seen as the third generation of distance education. After the first meeting in person with the whole class (24 students) and the three teachers on the course at the UCA campus in Epsom, UK, we have solely communicated through Computer Mediated Communication (CMC).
Next to a two hour interactive class per week using Zoom (an online video conferencing service – see appendix a), the group has been split into four groups of six people. In the first unit, each group had to create three group assignments and as all of us aren’t living on campus or even near the campus, all communication went via Zoom, Whatsapp, Google.docs and a communicable part of the Universities website (MyUCA) (see appendices a to d).
All of us, mature students, have had their own doubts when starting this course, specifically in relation to (group) work as well as interacting with CMC. We have now experienced a few months of learning this way. In the smaller group we have collaboratively brought two assignments to a good result. The first was a PowerPoint presentation of a learning theory and theorist. The second was a podcast about inclusivity in creative learning and this article for the Journal of Useful Investigations in Creative Arts is our third product.
Having found the experience of online group work incredibly rewarding, we chose to write this article about the experience. Having primarily interacted using a video conferencing service, we felt that it was a fitting forum to discuss our thoughts and consequently document our findings and research through a written discourse after each video. This enquiry came organically from our group work experiences that we began to analyse as part of our team tasks. It is also the most fundamentally different aspect to any course that any of us have engaged in.
The methodology of this article should be understood as a case study. This was our solo method of our discovery specific to our group as well as the fact that this was the first year that the PGCert has been run as an online course. We also want to make clear that this is a first level analysis that will hopefully be useful for future research.
We have identified different and interesting issues, some of them directly related to our own doubts when starting the course, some of them which came up whilst being on the course. Literature helped us to have a better understanding and deepened our learning.
The issues being discussed in this piece are:
- fostering online group cohesion
- technological challenges, fear of technology and self-silencing
- emotion and its impact in online learning
- styles of working collaboratively in an online group
The core of this article is the actual video recorded parts of our own experiences; research as it happens. Underneath it you can find the used literature.
Embedded within each video are footnote numbers that relate to the relevant reflection, research and literature below each film. There is also a running time number to the footnotes to help locate the points within the film.
Fostering Online Group Cohesion
Here we began to appraise the value of personalities and individual expectations when initiating student group work, the ways that an online working environment could be a barrier and how that can be a complex or troublesome challenge for new groups.
Active and Passive Social Engagement: 01:11
The success of the group was not entirely passive nor dependant purely on fortunate dovetailing of personalities. In addition to the good nature of the individuals involved, the group also actively put effort into fostering respect, creating working methods and keeping in constant contact.
Garrison, Anderson & Archer (2000:87-105) state that ‘socio-emotional interaction and support are important and sometimes essential in realizing meaningful and worthwhile educational outcomes. Social presence, in the form of socio-emotional communication, is possible in [Computer Mediated Communication (CMC)], but not automatic.’ The issue permeates new groups in any format, online or otherwise, but they may be exacerbated by the online nature of courses like this one. The concern, which was chiefly whether the lack of physical contact would deter positive social cohesion between members, has now become a discussion of whether the individually-controlled aspect of online working has been fundamental to both active and passive engagement. (05:25)
Using CMC for Cohesive Working Relations: 02:53
As mentioned in the discussion, the personalities of participants contributes significantly here. The unknowns would make predicting or designing successful online group dynamics among students difficult for an educator. Some participants to the group were able to fluidly interface with the group immediately despite using an online platform, while others needed a little longer to adapt or become accustomed to the platform (00:50, 03:57).
McInnerney & Roberts (2004:73-81) provide an example, signifying how polarising positive or negative online working relations can be. They establish that ‘asynchronous online courses often have a one-way flow of information between the lecturer and student, and are a passive method of teaching, which simply turns the Internet based online course into another form of distance education. By utilizing synchronous chat rooms, a sense of social presence develops that often leads to a greater sense of community.’
Bates (2015) agrees with this value in his work on online learning, pointing out as a strength ‘The asynchronous and recorded ‘affordances’ of online learning more than compensate for the lack of physical cues and other aspects of face-to-face discussion.’
Building Socio-Emotional Solidarity 03:12
Members of the group have agreed that they have been able to ask one another for professional or personal advice. (03:12, 04:45) The online environment has clearly not diminished this capacity for socio-emotional working relations.
When thinking about inclusiveness to the group, analysis on conversational dynamics by Eggins and Slade (1997:155) have established that good humour is a ‘semantic resource related to appraisal and involvement as humorous devices such as teasing, telling jokes or funny stories or using hyperbole enable interactants to negotiate attitudes and alignments, and provide a resource for indicating degrees of ‘otherness’ or ‘in-ness’.’ Humour played a significant role in this way for F4, inviting the members into close social proximity.
McInnerney & Roberts (2000:73-81) suggest there is significant online learning benefits of building and sustaining student interactivity. The discussion illustrates that the online environment has not hampered this capacity for socio-emotional working relations.
Further discussion and research from our analysis so far could be to recall the group’s early ‘icebreaker’ conversations, our established etiquette and our work expectations. These could be tested against other online student groups to see if the same framework leads to similar success in other circumstances.
It may also be important to note that many students will have a significant preference for independent or solitary learning, as found in the case put forward by Hopper (2003:24-29). An educator will need to consider this when consolidating social preferences and expectations.
Technological challenges, fear of technology and self-silencing
Here we discuss our apprehensions towards the use of new technologies in online group work as well as explore its impact on our behaviour within small and large group settings.
Technological challenges 00:10
One of our groups biggest apprehensions was technologies unreliable nature and learning a new technology system. Even though Zoom is far more advanced than other video conferencing services, some of our group members found it difficult to overcome the preconceived beliefs of online communication. Will the Wifi drop? Am I going to interrupt someone? Is my mic muted? All things our group members have found they now need to consider before contributing to online discussion inevitably hindering a natural flow of conversation and in some cases forcing some students to self-silence. Studies have shown that ‘students want clear and effective communication of online messages and instruction. The delay factor and lack of interaction in asynchronous communication can negatively influence student learning (Kang & Im, 2005:292-301 and Vonderwell & Turner, 2005:65-84).
Group Size: 00:57 and 04:25
Our group has found that the number of participants in a group contributes to a students ability to communicate clearly through the online platform. It has become evident that in our smaller group of six people there are still some delays, but overall the clarity of communication is effective. Whereas in the larger group of 24 communication breaks down. Social cues are eliminated when one person is sharing their screen. Students then feel prohibited from participating for the reasons mentioned above. ‘Collaborative and cooperative learning groups are smaller, usually with fewer than six members. As online group size increases, the proportion of messages contributed by the most active members remains constant at approximately 44 percent. Other members, however, contribute proportionately fewer messages.’ (Bonito & Hollingshead, 1997:227-261). This decreased participation results as group members feel the group becomes less efficacious with increased membership.’ (Carabajal, LaPointe, & Gunawardena, 2003:217-234)
Self Silencing 01:09
Some of our group members found that when participating in an online group setting that they felt the need to self-silence. ‘It has been argued that women adapt to power imbalance in groups by developing coping strategies that involve being accommodating and supportive toward others, that is, by self-silencing, rather than by acquiring and asserting power.’ (Horney 1937; Jack & Dill 1992, cited in London, Downey, Romero-Canyas, Rattan and Tyson, 2012:963) In an online setting where you also have to battle technological malfunctions asserting power or even just simply feeling confident that you’ll be heard becomes common place.
Online Etiquette 02:38
Using Zoom for online learning was a new experience for most members of our group; therefore, we were not well versed in the intricacies of video conferencing etiquette. ‘Kearsley points out that most people have little formal training in how to successfully interact or work with others and that the social milieu of online activities is quite different from in-person interactions, thus requiring new skills and behaviours’ (Kearsley 2000, cited in Brindley, Walti, and Blaschke, 2009:2). We have found that there are certain rules that you learn as you use the platform that can help communication in a group setting more clear. However it is only after experiencing the software first hand that you begin to develop this knowledge.
Physical Cues and Body Language 05:24
When sharing a screen within Zoom you only see a selection of the group in small boxes down the right side of the screen (see appendix a). During these sessions often the face of the person speaking is not displayed or is sometimes delayed. Physical cues that a person may display before speaking are then lost and the body language of the person speaking is non existent. ‘The absence of nonverbal cues such as voice intonations, facial expressions, and gestures may lead to misunderstanding of the intent of the communication, making it difficult to resolve conflicts of ideology or interest’. (Harasim, 1990, 1993 cited in Carabajal, LaPointe, Gunawardena 2003:217-234) The lack of physical proximity is noted as a hurdle for online collaborative learning. (Robinson, Kilgore and Warren (2017:29-51)
Promoting Initial Bonding 09:38
At the start of the PGCert, students participated in a full day in person class at UCA Epsom where we were taken through what the course would entail, but more importantly to physically meet and interact with the other students. Half way through the morning we were separated into groups of six and performed various activities together. These six people would later became our permanent group members for the entirety of the first unit. This in person gathering was vital to the initial bonding of our group. In a short period of time we were able to cover a lot of ground, stories were shared and decisions were discussed and made together.
In Strategies for Successful Group work, by Mary Nipp and Stephanie Maher Palenque (2017:42-45) they discuss Caroline Haythornthwaite’s (2000:195-226) recommendations for supporting virtual learning communities: ‘promote initial bonding, monitor and support continued interaction and provide multiple means of communications for sustaining group interactions’.
Emotion and its impact in online learning
In this section the team discusses the personal and emotional aspect of the experience. Fear of the unknown can be particularly debilitating when encountering online learning for the first time. It is usual for students to have none or very little experience of the online classroom.
Sense of self in the online class 00:25
Performance anxiety, disruption of physical and gestural prompts and the normal auditory expectations can all exacerbate a less positive emotional reaction to the new online environment. It is important to consider the role that a student’s emotional state has in fostering a successful educational atmosphere and facilitating a positive learning experience (Mega, Runconi and De Beni, 2014:121-131). Many students harbour negative emotions, and this can influence their educational outcomes, especially so in reference to the ‘adjustment process that occurs as students move online’. Which can lead to ‘stress and guilt for their inability to balance multiple roles and responsibilities, which is the most serious obstacle that the students face (Cleveland-Innes and Campbell, 2012:269-292). The balancing of multiple roles can be a concern. Learning within an online team structure can strip away the student from the comfort of their individual autonomy and ask them to rebuild their identity to facilitate multiple perspectives. However, by stepping away into smaller chat rooms there is more time to develop a social relationship with your peers. Once that occurs a student can feel less self-conscious, their experience within this other classroom can become a key element for greater acceptance of online education.
Fear of the unknown 00:57
Fear of the unknown can be particularly debilitating when encountering online learning for the first time. It is usual for students to have none or very little experience of the online classroom. Our group had almost no previous experience of online learning and everyone expressed a level of trepidation when embarking on course. Many of the group declared their concerns regarding their personal competence in regard to the use of the wide range of technology needed to interact with the course. The interface itself becomes ‘an independent force with which the learner must contend’ (Hillman, Willis and Gunawardena 1994, cited in Woods, Baker 2004:2).
Adjustment phase: the importance of the breakout group 02:32
Looking at some of the research on the online learning experience, there is an acknowledgement of this ‘adjustment phase’ which we discuss here as a group, which can make or break the online experience. One observation of this challenge states ‘One student was nervous about using her computer, and about entering the online community. As the course progressed, the nervousness dissipated resulting in her actively seeking out the company of her online community; this implies that she crossed the threshold and became an ‘insider’. Another stated that she felt uncomfortable in conferencing sessions, because she could never catch up when sessions were missed. She also found the online aspect of the community unfriendly and cold. The implication here is that she never crossed the threshold and stayed an ‘outsider’ for the duration of the course.’ (McInnerney and Roberts, 2004:73-81). In our experience we determined that the smaller breakout groups aided this transition greatly and minimised the fear and anxieties of the new technology whilst building new confidence via the supportive and collaborative dynamic of a small group.
Styles of working collaboratively in an online group
In this section the team compares the experience of group work online against previous class based group work. Notable discussion points include the enhanced collaborative and social element of online teams, and the benefits and also challenges of adapting to this learning style.
Comparing cooperative learning strategies 00:27 – 02:08
When comparing previous experiences of group work situations it became clear that group work structures vary; particularly the role of the individual within a team. Slavin foregrounds an important link between ‘individual accountability’ (Slavin 2010:162-178) and group goals; suggesting an important difference between ‘when the group task is to do something, rather than to learn something’. Previous experience of working in a class-based group and dividing the workload individually; completing tasks solo, and reconvening toward an outcome is more linked to the former ‘to do something’ where the goal is an individual aim. In contrast, the current online-based collaborative learning experience links more to the latter ‘to learn something’, and where the goal is a shared goal. Slavin’s study continues on to state ‘Group goals and individual accountability motivate students to give explanations and to take one another’s learning seriously’. We did indeed find that the balance of individual responsibility as part of a clear group directive enabled us to support our own and each other’s learning journeys; constantly peer reviewing and questioning.
Supported learning and enhanced collaboration 01:44 – 02:25
In this online experience it became clear that group-work online is not the same as group-work in a physical class. One clear difference all of our team noticed is the increased communication; we ‘met up’ outside of class via social media and independently organised online classrooms to work on our projects as a unit rather than splitting off and working independently on assigned tasks. On reading Barber, King, and Buchanen’s (2015:59-67) study this connectivity between the group seems to correlate to their findings ‘The use of Digital Moments began to take on a life of its own beyond the scheduled class time. Some students created their own learning communities on Facebook and LinkedIn in order to stay in touch once the course had ended. In addition, Twitter feeds were used to follow each other and sustain friendships and learning experiences’. This continual connectivity and additional time spent learning together was collaborative and supportive, and this is a benefit which resurfaces multiple times in our discussions. The same study continues on to state that online group work requires ‘enhanced collaboration’ and also a ‘social component’ for success, and that ‘These extended connections through technology became a web within which students connected on a personal level, a professional level, both emotionally and digitally […] Learning that is situated in digital worlds must also have a social component to be effective.’ (Barber, King, Buchanen, 2015:59-67)
Authentic learning experiences 02:25 – 02:45
When faced with a completely alien team structure and finding that this structure was not only a new experience but also yielded a stronger learning experience; the authenticity of previous group work learning is called into question. In this discussion authentic learning is understood as learning which has been meaningful and less concerned with “outcome”, but more the “process”. It links well to Stein, Isaacs, and Andrews (2004:239-258) definition of authentic learning ‘Authentic classroom practice is, therefore, that which reflects, for the students, a combination of personal meaning and purposefulness within an appropriate social and disciplinary framework. The learning experience is authentic for the learner while simultaneously being authentic to a community of practice.’ Indeed there could have been no better platform to explore online collaborative learning, than through this online group format. For our own learning this was hugely beneficial, but also to facilitating learning.
Some experiences discussed in this case study were explored repeatedly by more than one participant. These became significant learning points that are most pertinent to this study and could be of benefit to anyone planning online group sessions as a facilitator. Firstly, the ideal group size often arose in the discussions, with many participants of this study showing preference to working in smaller groups online. The discussions compared the smaller group size of 6 participants and a larger class group of over 25 participants. This finding is also supported by the literature on optimising collaborative learning environments ‘groups of four to six are better for more complex tasks in which a greater number of ideas may improve the final results’ (Indiana University Bloomington (s.d). Secondly, it is important to note that each group member remarked on the social context of the group dynamic as having an impact on our academic engagement in the group tasks. These impacts included:
Enhanced preparation – The Whatsapp group allowed the group to set an agenda and focus for all sessions which streamlined and optimised our group meetings.
Creating a support network – Extending our communication beyond our academic discussions helped to develop an honest and trusting environment which removed fear and assisted in peer learning. We felt more confident after learning from one another and could use open discussion to reflect upon the taught sessions.
Continuous learning – The constant contact through Whatsapp and the additional self-directed sessions enabled continuous learning where we could discuss ideas in real time, share research and critique one anothers contributions.
In addition to the impacts listed above it is also important to note that the initial session as a group was a one day physical class environment which is also a significant feature and benefit in these discussions. The group felt that the in-person meeting helped to initiate our social context. Finally, we often remark that our freedom to develop the group outside of the class according to our own needs and agency was valuable. These factors have prompted a positive level of engagement but we caution that they may not transferable to all collaborative groups of students. This could be linked to many factors. One commonality of note in this study is demographic; we are all mature students and already have experience in and an aptitude towards collaboration.
Another significant factor is expectation; we are enrolled on a course to learn about creative learning and education and have a focused growth mindset and incentive towards collaborative learning. This may not be so common in other disciplines.
The recorded videos, though they are informal, personal experiences, are the core element of the research and are a unique contribution to teaching and learning in higher education. Robinson (2017:46) describes this as ‘Exposing students to activities where they work closely with their peers in online classes through meaningful collaborative learning and informal conversations leads to deeper thought development and knowledge construction.’ Augmented by academic literature, the outcome of this is an example of active research ‘as it happened’.
In this study participants have discussed some of the important issues of learning online, both in bigger and in smaller groups. They have demonstrated and analysed a method of creating a collaborative work online in the small group (6 students). The types of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) used were a synchronous video conferencing system, an asynchronous group messaging service and a web-based word processor through which everyone could write in the same document concurrently. (More specifically we have been using the applications Zoom, WhatsApp and Google.docs for more information on those see appendices a to c)
The several group tasks in the participants’ PGCert coursework have brought personal growth on different levels for each student involved. Although this research gives a unique insight it might also be biased, as the subjects in the video’s were also the ones who analysed it. Further research might compare these findings against other small working groups on the same or similar online course from a greater sample size. Similar recordings of the actual group discussions using CMC could provide an effective tool to draw comparisons.
Jim Le Fevre is a BAFTA and British Animation Award winning Animation Director with 20 years commercial experience in animation. He has been involved in teaching since 2000 (taking workshops and lectures around the world), and since 2016 has been engaged in Higher Education as a Sessional Lecturer at the UCA Farnham BA(Hons) Animation course. He has recently become a Fellow of the UCA having completed his PGCert in 2019.
Madeline Jones is a TA for the Foundation and BA courses at UCA Canterbury, a mentor for the MA fine art course and creative tutor for KaMCOP. She is a practising artist working in London and the southeast, her work draws from a multiplicity of artistic traditions such as sculpture, photography, print and film, exploring the notion of place and spatiality.
Elizabeth Ransom is a sessional lecturer and TA for the BA and MFA photography courses at UCA Farnham and is an artist based in Surrey. Elizabeth’s work explores migration, hybridization and place attachment theory through the use of alternative photographic practices.
Fran Sheldon is a Fashion Futurist and Educator, with professional experience as a researcher and analyst for the fashion retail industry specialising in fashion technology, trend analysis and sustainable fashion solutions. Fran holds an MA (Dist) in Fashion Promotion, and has taught globally at leading fashion schools in the subjects of trend, and fashion technology.
Ben completed an MA in Interior Design at UCA Farnham in 2015 where he researched and designed solutions around growing food in urban areas. He has since worked as a freelancer, in projects for urban, community, product, web graphic and sustainable design. This included an Amsterdam-based design project in collaboration with ELIA and Pakhuis de Zwilger.
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Appendix a) – Zoom Video Conferencing Service.
Briefly to describe the technologies that we mention within this article, the Zoom video conferencing service allows for multiple users to interface in an online environment using video conferencing.
The PGCert has 24 students and up to 3 tutors, with Tony Reeves leading the session. Depending on your subscription, this service can accommodate up to 100 participants.
In our case, the main session, involving all students, has three main interfaces which users can choose between. The first is a ‘Gallery View’ where one can see all participants. The person speaking is generally highlighted by a yellow border around their video feed. The person speaking is chosen by the Zoom platform and seems to be dependent on the level of audio being received from that video feed.
The second is ‘Speaker View’ where the person speaking fills the main screen and a selection of participants are displayed on the right side of the screen. All other participants’ video feeds can be accessed by clicking on the arrows above and below that selection but this view can only be manually adjusted. Any participant speaking will not necessarily be seen by other users if they are not visible in the sidebar.
The third view is when someone shares their screen. In this view the left side of the screen is taken up by the shared screen view and a selection of participants are shown on the right.
This can be adjusted to accommodate more participants but depending on the amount of them there is still a limitation to the amount that can be shown. As with the Speaker View, any participant speaking will not necessarily be seen by other users if they are not visible in the sidebar.
Throughout the sessions one can mute oneself so that any ambient sounds do not interrupt the current speaker (something that one learns to do but sometimes forgets). Equally one can sometimes forget that you are muted and begin talking without realising nobody can hear you. In smaller groups (see below) this tends to get picked up quickly and other participants can flag this up to the muted speaker however in the larger groups it tends to get unnoticed.
Further to this, during the larger group sections, the organiser can put people into smaller groups during the session, called breakout rooms, to discuss points away from the larger group (group activities etc…).
The organiser has the ability to ‘drop-in’ to these sessions and the participants have the ability to request the organiser’s attendance if they are not there.
There is also an ability, throughout the session, whether in group or main mode, to communicate via a written chat box which can either broadcast to the whole group of to selected individual members privately.
The person organising it has the ability to record the sessions and give the ability to individual participants to record their own groups meaning people not attending can view the sessions at a later date or attending participants can access the sessions to revisit moments at a later date.
Appendix b) – WhatsApp
This social media service is an invite only platform (i.e. a person setting up a group will invite other members and therefore it is not a public forum other than the participants) where groups of people can communicate through typed messages broadcast to the whole group. It exists on the users’ smartphones and updates automatically whenever there is a comment posted.
Appendix c) – GoogleDocs
Google Docs is a shareable online document service where a user may create a text, presentation or spreadsheet document that can be shared and edited between two or more other users. This allows for documents to be worked on in tandem.
Appendix d) – MyUCA
MyUCA is the online hub where courses are organised, presented and information disseminated to the students.
On the website coursework is broadcast but specifically for the PGCert, there are Learning Logs where individual members continue to post ‘evidence’ of more individual tasks (in the form of Blogposts). These are accessible to all students and in fact feedback to blogposts (of students by students) forms part of the course demands.