JOURNAL OF DISTANCE EDUCATION
REVUE DE L’ÉDUCATION À DISTANCE
VOL. 23, No. 2, 69-92
Student Perceptions of Group Work in an Online Course:
Benefits and Challenges
Myung Hwa Koh and Janette R. Hill
Online group work is becoming an increasingly popular instructional strategy.
Although researchers have questioned the benefits of group work in online
learning environments, little empirical research has examined the challenges it
presents. The purpose of this study was to investigate the experiences of students
involved in online group work to explore its benefits and challenges. The findings
indicated that most learners found that building familiarity with group members,
receiving instructors' prompt feedback, and managing time effectively were
beneficial. Challenges resulted from difficulties communicating,
misunderstanding of course goals, and a perceived lack of sense of community.
Suggestions for addressing these challenges are provided.
Le travail de groupe en ligne devient une stratégie pédagogique de plus en plus
populaire. Même si les chercheurs remettent en cause les bénéfices du travail de
groupe dans les environnements d’apprentissage en ligne, peu de recherche
empirique a été faite sur les défis qu’il présente. Le but de cette étude était
d’investiguer les expériences d’étudiants impliqués dans le travail de groupe en
ligne, pour explorer ses bénéfices et ses défis. Les résultats indiquent que la
plupart des apprenants trouvent que construire la familiarité avec les membres du
groupe, recevoir de la rétroaction de l’enseignant rapidement, et gérer le temps
efficacement étaient bénéfiques. Les défis se situaient dans les difficultés de
communication, les malentendus à propos des buts du cours, et un manque perçu
de sens de la communauté. Des suggestions pour répondre à ces défis sont
Online learning is a popular delivery method for teaching and learning in
higher education settings. The number of students in the U.S. enrolled in
distance education courses offered by degree-granting postsecondary
institutions increased from 1.6 million in the fall 2002 to 3.5 million by the
fall 2006 (Allen & Seaman, 2007). As in face-to-face learning
environments, online learning environments are designed in a variety of
ways using many strategies to meet the needs of the students. For
example, students in online courses are asked to complete work
individually as well as to complete projects in groups.
Online group work is an instructional strategy that is becoming
increasingly popular (Bonk, Lee, Liu, & Su, 2007). Online group work is
defined as students working together as a small group, “executing
simultaneous, collaborative work processes through electronic media
without regard to geographic location” (Chinowsky & Rojas, 2003: 89).
The group work that takes place in online courses thus ranges from
participation on a discussion board to working in small groups as part of
the learning process. Students in a small group may also work with other
students to complete a group project, such as writing a paper or
developing a product through discussion, negotiation, and feedback in an
online learning environment.
Scholars have stressed the need to take a closer look at group
interaction in online learning environments in order to promote effective
interaction (Driver, 2002). However, few studies have examined the
challenges of group work from a student perspective. Therefore, to
improve our practice, we need to expand our knowledge of what students
find challenging, as well as beneficial, about group work in online
The purpose of this study was to investigate the students' perceptions
of their group work experiences in an online course in a formal learning
context. We also sought to identify strategies that can be implemented to
assist students in completing group work online. In this paper, we report
the results of our study. We begin by describing some of the literature that
guided the study. Next, we present the methods used, including
participant information, the context for the study, data collection, and
data analysis. We conclude with a discussion of the findings and
implications for future research and practice.
In this section, we review some of the reported benefits and challenges of
group work in an online course, the strengths of an online learning
environment, the weaknesses of an online learning environment, how
these factors might affect student group work in an online class, as well
as what factors impact student satisfaction with online group work.
Benefits and Challenges of Online Group Work
Some of the literature related to online learning indicates that group work
in online classes is beneficial because it enables learners to develop higher
order and critical thinking skills as well as to build knowledge and
70 STUDENT PERCEPTIONS OF GROUP WORK
meaning (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004; Palloff & Pratt, 2005). However,
other researchers have reported that online group work may be perceived
by students as more challenging than group work in face-to-face settings
(Graham, 2002; Häkkinen, 2004; Taylor, 2005). For example, online group
work among distance learners lacks some of the social interaction that
occurs in face-to-face settings (Kreijns & Kirschner, 2004). This may result
in unfamiliarity among group members, which can lead to deficient
group dynamics (Fung, 2004). Online collaborative groups may also go
through delayed group developmental stages, taking longer to develop
social relationships (Fung, 2004; Johnson, Suriya, Yoon, Berrett, & Fluer,
Strengths and Weaknesses of Online Learning Environment
R e s e a rchers have found that learners perceive flexibility and
convenience as strengths of online learning environments (see, for
example, Song, Singleton, Hill, & Koh, 2004). In such environments
students can spend time on class projects on their own terms, namely,
without having to be physically there. Through bulletin boards, chat
rooms, electronic mail, and white boards, students can communicate with
their instructor and with each other at any time. This is also a strength of
online group work, where flexibility and convenience enable contact with
group members anywhere, anytime.
Other re s e a rchers suggest that students in an online learning
environment can develop critical thinking skills as well as reflection skills.
Conrad and Donaldson (2004) argue that collaborative activities in online
learning environments that involved student idea sharing and other
forms of interaction trigger deeper processing of content. Palloff and Pratt
(2005) also point out that group work in online learning environments
promotes transformative learning by developing critical thinking skills
and by encouraging reflection. The asynchronous environment allows
students to read messages, reflect on them, and write carefully about their
ideas over time (Petrides, 2002; Vonderwell, 2003). As a result, students
may receive more thoughtful and in-depth comments from their
classmates than what might occur in a synchronous context.
While learners have provided insights into the benefits of online
classes, several weaknesses have also been reported. One of these is lack
of a sense of community (Song, et al., 2004; Vonderwell, 2003). Online
learning participants indicated a lack of connection with faculty and other
learners, stating that this reduced sense of connection had a negative
impact on their overall class experience. Alack of connection can also
have a negative impact on group work in online environments. However,
it should also be noted that a similar lack of connection is also routine in
traditional classroom courses.
STUDENT PERCEPTIONS OF GROUP WORK 71
Another weakness reported in the literature is difficulty with
communication. In Vonderwell's (2003) study, some students worried
about communication problems they might encounter since they did not
see each other face-to-face. These included delayed response and
unfamiliarity with classmates. Kim, Liu, and Bonk (2005) reported that
the difficulty of communication was one of the key barriers among peers
because of learners' time zone differences and the absence of face-to-face
meetings. Difficulty with communication can be particularly challenging
for groups working online, where delays and not having a sense of
knowing the group members can have a clear impact on gro u p
These challenges should be addressed to improve the quality of
learning and increase students' satisfaction with online classes in general
and online group work in particular. Because student satisfaction is an
important measure of the quality of online education (Mayadas, Bourne,
& Moore, 2003), one needs to consider ways to enhance the quality of the
learning experience. We also need to know what factors students'
recognize as challenging in the online learning experience and how those
factors relate to student satisfaction and performance.
The overall strengths and weaknesses of online learning create an
important context for understanding specific interactions in these
environments. As indicated above, many of the reported strengths and
weaknesses relate to participant interaction. This pattern also holds true
when examining group work in online contexts. Several aspects of group
work are related to the social interaction that occurs when teams of
students work collaboratively toward project completion.
The Factors Impacting Student Satisfaction with Online Group Work
Social interaction is important for online group work as it can impact
students' perception of collaboration and social presence. Social
interaction plays a role in enhancing student learning and satisfaction
with online courses. Social interaction is also affected by features of the
online learning environment, individual learners' characteristics, and
instructors' pedagogical strategies. In turn, social interaction may impact
group formation, group dynamics, and the building of group structures
(Kreijns, Kirschner, Jochems, & Van Buuren, 2004). Understanding how
these elements work together during group work in an online context is
important for facilitating learning. Some researchers have sought to
identify strategies to make the social interactions that occur in online
group work more explicit. For example, the framework proposed by
Kreijins et al. (2004) suggests that relationship sociality, social presence,
pedagogical technique, and interaction are important aspects for
facilitating group work in an online context.
72 STUDENT PERCEPTIONS OF GROUP WORK
Social presence-the feeling of community or connection among
learners (Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997)-is one aspect of interaction that
has received considerable attention in the literature. The three categories
of social presence, open communication, cohesive responses, and
a ffective connections, work pro g r essively to create a community
(Garrison &Vaughan, 2008). Meaningful communication is achieved
when students can interact in an open manner. As such, “social
relationships create a sense of belonging, support freedom of expression,
and maintain group cohesiveness, but they do not structure and focus
academic interest among the students” (Garrison &Vaughan, 2008: 21).
Social interaction is insufficient to sustain a community and achieve
academic goals; however, the presence of group cohesion can enable
students to engage in discourse and work collaboratively (Garrison &
Vaughan, 2008). Some researchers, such as Tu and McIsaac (2002), have
attempted to gain more insight into social presence by exploring its
various aspects. Tu and McIsaac proposed three dimensions of social
p r esence: social context, online communication, and interactivity.
According to their model, each dimension is important for facilitating
learning. Other researchers who have explored the impact of social
p resence in online environments indicated that social presence is
positively associated with student satisfaction with online courses
(Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997; Palloff & Pratt, 2005). Social presence is one
key factor that influences online group processes and development
(Gunawardena et al., 2001). Social presence may enable students to
develop effective groups online by helping establish a context for
communication and interactivity. In turn, social presence may assist the
students in building a sense of community in an online class (Garrison &
Anderson, 2003; Garrison & Vaughan, 2008; Palloff & Pratt, 2005).
Technology is another factor identified as being relevant to students'
satisfaction with online group work. Technology gives geographically
and temporally distributed students the opportunity for collaboration in
a virtual workplace by providing an environment for knowledge
construction (Stacey, 1999). Technology impacts both group interaction
and group dynamics (Brandon & Hollingshead, 1999; McDonald &
Gibson, 1998). Technical problems may hinder communication between
group members, which, in turn, can make collaboration between group
members difficult. Ensuring the security and reliability of the
technological environment is important for online group work, since this
will enable smoother interactions. In addition, helping students feel
comfortable with the system and with the software that they are using
will also assist with the online interactions of the group.
Another important aspect of group work is the level of interaction and
engagement experienced within the group. Increasingly, researchers view
STUDENT PERCEPTIONS OF GROUP WORK 73
a group as a social system. According to Forsyth (1999), groups are
systems of interacting individuals within a dynamic environment; their
development is affected by many different elements. Carabajal, Lapointe,
and Gunawardena (2003) suggest three online group development
dimensions including task, social, and technological aspects. To gain
insight into online group development, we need to understand how the
dimensions influence each other and, in turn, how they impact interaction
and learning for group members.
Carabajal et al. (2003) also suggest that groups go through three stages
that include entry, process, and outcome. Entry consists of any factors
p r esent at the beginning of the group setting such as members'
characteristics, learners' skills and personalities, group size, task types,
and culture. Process elements include participation, role, communication
pattern, group history, and leadership. Outcomes are what the group
p r oduces and achieves, including the groups' performance (e.g.,
production, decision) and the group members' satisfaction and learning.
Hence, as a group is a dynamic system, online group development is
affected by many different elements. In online group development, all
entry elements influence group processes, which also affect outcomes
such as satisfaction and group performance.
This study sought to gain a further understanding of some of the factors
that students perceive as beneficial and challenging to group work online.
Specifically, we addressed three research questions:
1. What factors of online group work do students recognize as
beneficial in the learning process?
2. What factors of online group work do students recognize as
challenging in the learning process?
3. How do students' perceptions of online group work differ between
individuals reporting they were satisfied with the online group
work experience and those reporting they were unsatisfied with the
online group work experience?
Amixed methods design was used to answer the research questions.
Creswell (1999) indicated that a mixed methods approach, using both
quantitative (predominately closed-ended response survey) and
qualitative methods (interview), is a valuable strategy when studying
complex environments. The survey items were used to determine what
level of perceived challenges, and perceived beneficial factors in their
group work experiences were. Statistical correlations were performed on
the survey data to determine which items were related to students'
74 STUDENT PERCEPTIONS OF GROUP WORK
satisfaction with group work. The interviews were used to gain deeper
insights into the students' perceptions.
The participants in this study were all graduate students at a large
university in the Southern United States. Thirty-seven students
participated in the survey and five participants participated in a follow-
up interview. The participants' ages ranged from 20 to 50; fifteen students
were between 20 and 29, nine students were between 30 and 39, eleven
students were between 40 and 49, and two students were between 50 and
59.There were 21 males (56.8%) and 16 females (43.2%). Many were
instructional technology majors and had taken several classes online prior
to the class used in the study.
There was a limitation associated with the research. The participants were
determined by using purposeful sampling, with a focus on graduate
students in a formal course in instructional technology. Generalizability
should not be expected nor assumed.
The participants in this study were enrolled in an instructional design
course in an instructional technology degree program. The course is
required by the instructional technology program for students taking
master's level courses. This course, the fully online version supported by
HorizonWimba®, was offered in two semesters: spring and summer. The
spring course met synchronously online for two and one half hours on
one night of each week. The summer course met synchronously online for
two and one half hours every weekday for three weeks. Both offerings of
the course required participants to be involved in a group project in
which students worked on several instructional design activities (e.g.,
analyzing the context where the instruction would occur, developing
instructional materials for their proposed instructional solution).
In this course, students formed groups during an initial face-to-face
meeting that took place on the first day of class. Students were provided
with many opportunities to get to know each other through a variety of
activities during the first class (i.e., discussing their hobbies; geographic
origins; interesting education areas, such as K-12, higher education, and
business/industry; sitting together and talking within an interest group).
The final groups each consisted of three to six students.
The students were also provided with an overview of the group
project during the initial face-to-face meeting. The group project was a
design document written in a narrative style that included various
STUDENT PERCEPTIONS OF GROUP WORK 75
sections that are traditionally found in real-world Instructional Design
reports (e.g., description of the analysis completed, recommendations for
evaluation of the instruction). The team designed the project as a potential
solution to a clearly defined instructional problem. Some groups chose a
project leader or a coordinator for the group project. Most of the groups
allocated their members to specific roles such as instructional designer,
reviewer, developer, and evaluator.
Data collection tools for the study included surveys and interviews. The
survey, completed by 37 participants, was comprised of 15 questions
focused on learner characteristics, perceived challenges, and perceived
beneficial factors in their group work experiences (see Figure 1 for an
example of survey and interview questions). The survey, designed by
multiple researchers to investigate students' perception of an online
learning environment, has been used in several research studies (see,
Song et al., 2004). In this research, the two authors added six items
regarding online group work to the survey based on the literature. The
survey was also tested on a small sample of learners in a pilot test.
Revisions were made based on the feedback from the sample prior to full
Survey data were collected via a Web-based survey. The first
researcher contacted students who took the instructional design course
synchronously online during a two-year period to ask them to participate.
During this time, the students would have had the same assignments and
the same instructor for the course.
After conducting the survey, the first author contacted the
participants, who provided additional information and agreed to
participate in the follow-up interview in the survey, by email. The first
author interviewed five participants (see Figure 1 for an example of
survey and interview questions). Four of these students were
instructional technology majors. The purpose of the interviews was to
obtain data in regard to the students' perceptions of group work in an
online class and to solicit their advice for new learners and online
instructors on how to facilitate student online group work. The data
collection process ended in the summer of 2005.
76 STUDENT PERCEPTIONS OF GROUP WORK
Figure 1. An Example of Survey and Interview Questions
Survey Sample Questions
9. What problems did you encounter while doing group work? Select all that apply.
__difficulty understanding goals/objectives
__lack of accountability
__lack of adequate subjective knowledge
__lack of feedback
__lack of leadership
__lack of sense of community
__lack of time
__other (please list as many as applicable):
10. Which factors do you think are important in achieving success in a group work?
Select the appropriate response.
Factor Not Somewhat Important Very Extremely
Clarity of objectives 1 2 3 4 5
Instructor feedback 1 2 3 4 5
Motivation of the group 1 2 3 4 5
Time management 1 2 3 4 5
Technology comfort level 1 2 3 4 5
Accountability 1 2 3 4 5
Teamwork 1 2 3 4 5
Subject knowledge 1 2 3 4 5
Suitable role 1 2 3 4 5
Group size 1 2 3 4 5
Resources 1 2 3 4 5
Interview Sample Questions
1. Think about a time when you took XXXX online and worked with your group
members. Could you tell me about your experiences in group work in an online course?
Could you tell me about what worked well in your online group work?
2. Could you tell me what challenges you faced in your online group work?
3. What suggestions would you make to a student participating in a group work project
in an online course for the first time?
STUDENT PERCEPTIONS OF GROUP WORK 77
4. What suggestions would you give an instructor on how to facilitate students' group
work in an online learning environment?
The purpose of this study was not to build a theory, but to gain a deeper
understanding of the factors that students perceive as beneficial and
challenging to online group work. The data analyses were designed to
decipher which factors students perceived as beneficial in group work
process and which factors were perceived as challenging.
In the case of the quantitative data, the survey data were analyzed
using SPSS. The survey included yes/no responses and responses to
questions using a five-point Likert-type scale. This study used descriptive
statistics to calculate mean or standard deviations of the data. In addition,
t-statistic and chi-square analyses were used to compare the two groups
(the satisfied sub-group and the unsatisfied sub-group).
All participants were divided into two subgroups: the satisfied
s u b g roup and the unsatisfied subgroup according to self-report of
satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the online group experience (i.e.,
Question one on the survey, “How satisfied were you with your online
group work experiences?” using a five-point Likert-type scale; ranging
from 1 = “Very Dissatisfied” to 5 = “Very Satisfied”). Students who
responded to this question with 1, 2, or 3 were labeled as “unsatisfied
with the group work experience,” while those who responded with 4 or 5
were labeled as “satisfied with the group work experience."
Inductive analysis methods were used to analyze the follow-up
interviews. The basic strategy for this method is to constantly compare a
particular incident in the data with another incident in the same set or
another set of data; this assists in generating social theory (Charmaz, 2002;
Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Qualitative data were organized according to the
participants' responses to each interview question. Two researchers coded
the interview transcripts individually and then compared their codings in
order to identify themes that would inform the initial research questions.
Multiple sources of data were collected and used to check for validity and
reliability (Merriam, 1998). Peer examination was also used to ensure the
trustworthiness of this qualitative inquiry (Merriam, 1998). Results from
the analysis are discussed in the following sections.
The results of this study indicate several trends in the factors perceived by
learners as beneficial and challenging regarding group work in an online
class. The overall research questions have been used to organize the
presentation of the data. Quotes provided in this section are from
interviews with the participants.
78 STUDENT PERCEPTIONS OF GROUP WORK
What factors of online group work do students recognize as beneficial?
The survey used a five-point Likert-type scale (ranging from 1 = “Not
important” to 5 = “Extremely important”) to indicate which online group
work factors were most beneficial in their learning process. The
participants identified the following factors as beneficial in their group
work (listed in rank order by mean): clarity of objectives (4.51), teamwork
(4.46), motivation of group members (4.41), time management (4.24),
accountability (4.08), and instructor feedback (4.05) (see Table 1). The
results were also divided according to the individual students who
reported being satisfied with their online group work experience and
those who reported being dissatisfied with their online group work
experience. Overall, all factors were perceived as beneficial in promoting
group work in an online class by both the satisfied subgroup and the
The analysis of the interview transcripts indicated similar results.
Most of the participants indicated that building familiarity among group
members, instructor's help with group formation, clear feedback and
guidelines regarding the group project was beneficial.
All participants perceived building familiarity among group members
as beneficial. Building familiarity involves getting to know each other in
order to establish working relationships. For example, Stacy, one of the
participants, mentioned the importance of building a re l a t i o n s h i p :
“Without being able to see each other's faces, it's hard to understand
where people are coming from and their reactions and what they really
mean.” Stacy made the following suggestions about building
I think without fun you cannot have a good group. So, maybe, it would be
most important that people first, you know, go play putt-putt or go have
dinner and try to build more of a relationship before trying to negotiate all
of the confusing communications.
Another student, Michael, also mentioned that his group “didn't have
much conflict” because “the group pretty much knew each other.” His
group had five members, two of whom he already knew from a previous
class. He explained how he began to get closer to his group members: “I
got a chance to talk to them and hear stories about them, just little things,
about family and what they did in their spare time. And so that made me
grow closer to everybody else.” He suggested that to build relationships
students should spend some time talking “not just about team work, [or]
about projects, but we talked about things outside of school” to learn
more about the group members' personalities.
STUDENT PERCEPTIONS OF GROUP WORK 79
Table 1. Summary of Factors That Promote Success in Group work in an Online Course
Satisfied subgroup Unsatisfied subgroup
Question Items (N = 18) Mean (Std.) (N = 19) Mean (Std.)
Which factors do you think
are important in achieving
success in group work?
Clarity of Objectives 4.67 (.594) 4.37 (.761)
Teamwork 4.44 (.544) 4.47 (.854)
Motivation of the Group 4.33 (.594) 4.47 (.513)
Time Management 4.17 (.707) 4.32 (.749)
Accountability 3.83 (.806) 4.32 (.813)
Instructor Feedback 4.22 (.647) 3.89 (.809)
Note: Scale ranges from 1 = “not important” through 5 = “extremely important.” The satisfied group
was divided by the students who answered question one with “four” and “five.” Question one was
“How satisfied were you satisfied with your online group work experiences?”
The participants also perceived assistance with group formation as
beneficial. Finding a group was difficult in this online learning
environment because students did not have the chance to build a strong
rapport after a one-time face-to-face meeting. Group formation factors
include commonalities, group size, interest, differing abilities, and
suitable roles. Jennifer, one of the participants, stated the importance of
the group members' commonalty including their interests, common
subject areas, and subject knowledge. She stated, “At least we had some
common subject area knowledge to work with.” Karen also expressed her
negative experience and pointed out how the instructor's facilitation of
the group process would have been helpful given the group members'
different interests and backgrounds. She suggested that the instructor
should help students to find an “appropriate” group formation. She
It was hard because everybody was from such different backgrounds and
had different interests. And I was really on the fringe. So, a lot of them
were very similar to each other. But I was just way out there. So, that's a big
challenge I think that the professor needs to facilitate that.
Most of participants perceived the instructor's prompt and clear
feedback and guidelines as beneficial. Michael expressed his positive
80 STUDENT PERCEPTIONS OF GROUP WORK
experience about this type of feedback. His team asked for feedback to
make sure they were going in the right direction. His instructor gave them
imperative feedback such as “You need to change this,” “Maybe you need
to look into this more,” and “You're going in the right direction.” Jennifer
pointed out that an instructor should give just in time and detailed
feedback: “Make a real effort to give them [the students] feedback. If
you're expecting something to be turned in on a daily basis or every other
day then give feedback as often as you possibly can.”
What factors of online group work do students recognize as challenging?
The survey used a yes/no scale to indicate which online group work
factors were perceived as most challenging in the learning process. Many
participants in this research study reported the following as challenges in
their group work experiences (in rank order by percentage): difficulty
understanding goals (49%), lack of a sense of community (38%), difficulty
with communication (30%), and lack of accountability (27%). Across all
levels of satisfaction in both subgroups, it appeared that difficulty
understanding goals was the most challenging factor in group work
online. Lack of time was also an important issue to both two groups.
Comparing the two subgroups, there were statistically significant
d i ff e rences in some challenging factors at α= .05 (see Table 2).
Participants in the unsatisfied subgroup perceived some aspects as more
challenging than did participants in the satisfied subgroup. Alack of a
sense of community was the biggest gap between the two groups, which
differed 52%. Next, difficulties of understanding of goals/objectives,
difficulty with communication, and lack of accountability had over a 30%
difference between the two groups. Table Two also illustrates that student
subject knowledge, accountability, difficulty with technology, a lack of
feedback, a lack of a sense of community, leadership, and course design
(goals/objectives, timeframe) affected students' perception negatively.
In line with the survey results, the analysis of the interview transcripts
indicated participants perceived the lack of a sense of community,
difficulty with communication, and lack of time as challenges for group
work. The biggest challenge reported by study participants in the
interviews was the lack of a sense of community. Karen, for example,
stated that “it would take longer to get close without seeing people”
because it was hard to get to know people's personalities. Some
participants who had no commonality such as major, program, age, or job
(teacher or non-teacher) felt more the lack of a sense of community in
their group more strongly. Michael exemplified this sentiment:
They [group members] were talking to each other a lot. They had stories
they could share with each other because they knew each other so well and
STUDENT PERCEPTIONS OF GROUP WORK 81
I was just sitting back being quiet because I couldn't relate to their stories
because I'd never been in class with them.
Linda's comments challenged the very nature of online learning. She
discussed the difficulty of accomplishing group projects online: “It would
have been very hard to do online without being able to interact directly
with each other. It would have taken a lot longer.” She also addressed the
difficulty with communication because of her group members' different
writing styles and perspectives: “We didn't know each other, and we all
had very different writing styles, and it was very hard to come up with a
cohesive paper at the end of the project.”
Table 2. Summary of Factors That Hinder Success in Group work in an Online Course
% of satisfied % of unsatisfied % of diff.
Question Items subgrp (N = 18) subgrp(N = 19) between grps
Which problems did you
encounter while doing
Difficulty understanding 28% 68% 40%
Lack of a sense of 11% 63% 52%
Difficulty with 11% 47% 36%
Lack of accountability * 11% 42% 31%
Lack of time 17% 32% 15%
Lack of feedback 17% 32% 15%
Lack of adequate subject 12% 26% 14%
Lack of leadership 6% 26% 20%
Difficulty with technology 17% 16% -1%
Note: 0 = No, 1 = Yes. Values significant p < .05 are indicated by *. The Chi-Square test
was used to determine the statistical significance. All tests had 1 degree of freedom.
82 STUDENT PERCEPTIONS OF GROUP WORK
Lack of time was also reported as a concern particularly by some of the
participants in the shorter summer session. Karen pointed out that lack of
time was the biggest problem. She argued that she did not have enough
time to become familiar with and to understand the group project. She
stated, “If I would have had more time to breathe then I could have
f i g u r ed it [project material] out.” Reflecting on her group work
experience, she said, “I think if I had had more time, then it would have
been a really good experience to see what's out there and what kinds of
technologies.” Another participant in the short session, Jennifer, pointed
out, “The workload was overwhelming. Umm, I think we all felt very
stressed out during that class because we had so much to accomplish in
such a short period of time.” She also said that “It was like, 'Get this done
now!' And our paper was weak in a lot of areas because we never had
time to sit together.” She also mentioned that she did not have enough
reflection time, suggesting, “Just give them more time to reflect. We had
no time to reflect.”
How do students' perceptions of online group work differ between individuals
reporting they are satisfied with the online group work experience and those
reporting they are unsatisfied with the online group work experience?
The survey used a five-point Likert-type scale (ranging from 1 = “Not
Satisfied” to 5 = “Very Satisfied”) to indicate how students were satisfied
with their group process and structure. The participants reported the
following levels of satisfaction: satisfaction with group size (3.70), role in
a group (3.68), workload (3.41), group decision process (3.38), and group
Overall, regarding all group process and structure, the participants in
the unsatisfied subgroup were less satisfied than the participants in the
satisfied group. Comparing the satisfied and unsatisfied groups, there
were statistically significant differences in satisfaction with group size,
workload, group decision process, group members, and role in group at
α= .05. Overall, re g a rding all group process and stru c t u re, the
participants in the unsatisfied subgroup were less satisfied than the
participants in the satisfied group. Satisfaction with the group decision
process had the biggest mean difference between the two groups, which
differed by 1.43 (see Table 3).
STUDENT PERCEPTIONS OF GROUP WORK 83
Table 3. Summary of Overall Satisfaction with Group work in an Online Course
Satisfied subgroup Unsatisfied subgroup
Question Items (N = 18) Mean (Std.) (N = 19) Mean (Std.)
How satisfied were you with 4.33 (.907) 3.11 (0.994)
the group size in your project?*
How satisfied were you with 4.28 (.752) 3.11 (1.100)
your role in your project?*
How satisfied were you with 3.89 (.758) 2.95 (1.129)
your workload in the group work?*
How satisfied were you with 4.11 (.676) 2.68 (.820)
with the way group decisions
How satisfied were you with 4.00 (.840) 2.63 (1.012)
your team members?*
Note: Scale ranges from 1 = “Very Dissatisfied” through 5 = “Very Satisfied.” Values significant
p < .05 are indicated by *. The t-statistic test was used to determine the statistical significance.
In their interviews as well as in their survey responses, students in the
satisfied and unsatisfied subgroups ranked the challenges they faced
differently. Participants who were dissatisfied with group work struggled
with communication, finding a group, lack of a sense of community, lack
of commonality with group members, and lack of subject knowledge. For
example, when a researcher asked one participant how comfortable she
felt with other members, the participant answered that Karen felt
uncomfortable with all the group members except for one woman: “There
was one girl who I really liked in my group a lot, that I felt comfortable
with. But the other people either . . . I don't know, they all knew more than
me and I just felt like I was just kind of a drag. Like I was just slowing the
team down.” Her comments indicate that she felt both a lack of
community and a lack of subject knowledge.
In addition to discussing specific challenges and beneficial factors,
interviewees also provided several suggestions for faculty members
teaching online courses and for prospective online group work learners.
The interview analysis indicated several important roles for instructors
and students. While not directly related to the study, we thought they
were important findings from the data. The suggestions are summarized
in Table 4.
84 STUDENT PERCEPTIONS OF GROUP WORK
Table 4. Instructor and Student Roles in Group work in an Online Course
1. Helping students find a group 1. Building familiarity with each other
2. Supporting group formation 2. Spending time on planning; deciding how
they will work together
3. Giving prompt, clear, and 3. Developing standards and norms for
detailed feedback communication.
4. Providing clear objectives and a 4. Selecting a group coordinator
detailed explanation of group
5. Motivating students 5. Held accountable for their work on group
6. Helping students to build virtual 6. Discussing their situation with their group
team skills members, and letting their group members
know up front if they can not finish their work
before the deadline
7. Believing in the importance of the group
Discussion and Implications
Despite the challenges described above, online group work was perceived
as beneficial by many of the students in the online course. One
predominant reason given was that the online learning format provided
the learners with flexibility in terms of not having to be in a particular
physical location to attend class. Further, participants indicated that the
convenience afforded by the flexibility also assisted with participation in
class. For example, although students did not meet face-to-face, group
members communicated with each other, exchanged their ideas, received
feedback through the bulletin board or email, and had group discussion
through chat forums or telephone.
The results from the study also indicated that students found online
group work to be more difficult than group work in face-to-face settings.
In terms of what students indicated as most challenging in this study,
difficulty with communication and lack of a sense of community were
among the top factors. For example, four of the five interview participants
indicated that they had face-to-face meetings because of the difficulties
they had with online communication.
STUDENT PERCEPTIONS OF GROUP WORK 85
The communication barrier reported by participants in this study is
reflected in the literature on online learning. For example, Kim et al.
(2005) found that the difficulty of communication among peers is a major
challenge due to the absence of face-to-face contact among the students in
online settings. Thus, there is a need to work with learners to assist them
in overcoming the difficulty of communication when learning in an
Online group work requires considerable interaction among group
members. Yet current Web-based learning environments may not fully
support opportunities for social interaction (Bonk et al. 2007; Kirschner &
Van Bruggen, 2004), psychologically or technically. Text-based tools
restrict interpersonal conversation to the exchange of text-based
communication (as opposed to verbal communication) (Krejins &
Kirschner, 2004). For some learners, the failure to express feelings,
opinions, and describe situations can create significant barriers to
communication. Technological challenges (e.g., slow connection speeds,
lost connectivity) may also deter communication between gro u p
members making collaboration difficult. When communication is
constrained by the technical apparatus, the collaborative process cannot
function at an optimal level (Ragoonaden & Bordeleau, 2000). In both
instances, problems may be solved by providing group process rules
(protocols or standards) at the beginning of a project (Chinowsky & Rojas,
2003). Examples of group process rules include expecting a reply within
24 hours, sending e-mail outside the course system to let others know
about challenges, and using the telephone to report problems. These
strategies can assist in creating group norms and standards to help
students to overcome the difficulties of online communication, thereby
proving useful for the individual and the team.
Lack of a sense of community was also perceived as challenging for
online group work by participants in this study. This is not a new
challenge for learners in online learning environments in general. Many
scholars have investigated lack of community in online learning (Hill,
Raven, & Han, 2002; Kim et al. 2005; Song et al., 2004). Due to the
properties of the medium, online groups may go through delayed group
developmental stages, taking longer to develop social re l a t i o n s h i p s
(Fung, 2004; Gunawardena et al., 2001; Johnson et al., 2002). Such
challenges may hinder building team trust and unity (Johnson et al.,
2002). According to Gunawardena (1995), the development of a sense of
community is the key to promoting collaborative learning. Social
presence is important for promoting group dynamics and facilitating
online group work (Garrison & Anderson, 2003; Garrison & Vaughan,
2008; Palloff & Pratt, 2005). To promote a sense of connection, an online
instructor should provide numerous opportunities for learners to increase
86 STUDENT PERCEPTIONS OF GROUP WORK
their familiarity with group members and build more tru s t i n g
relationships. As a result, learners may gradually form a community of
learners. There is a need to work with learners to assist them with
building familiarity and establishing a community in online groups.
Integrating strategies for community building into the design of the
course may assist with this effort (e.g., Conrad & Donaldson, 2004).
Continued research related to community building strategies in a variety
of contexts (e.g., small groups, large groups) is also needed to enable the
advancement of best practices in the dynamic context of online learning
environments and the group work that occurs in these environments.
Time management was also mentioned as a challenge in both the
surveys and the interviews with participants in this study. Other scholars
have also indicated that time management can be a challenge. For
example, Palloff and Pratt (2005) suggest that groups need to know up
front how much time a collaborative activity will take, and each group
member needs to commit to that time. Hill (2002) and Song et al. (2004)
found time management to be a useful skill for success in online learning
settings, suggesting some strategies for managing time. For example, the
students should feel a sense of responsibility and commitment to group
projects and should also commit a specific amount of time to working on
group projects. Providing learners with an overview of time management
strategies should form a part of the orientation for online courses (Palloff
& Pratt, 2005).
Given the importance of facilitating group work, implications for the
design and development of these environments is also an important
element for discussion. Difficulty understanding goals and objectives of
the course and the project was also perceived as challenging during
online group work in this study. Instructional designers should consider
ways to facilitate group work in an online environment. Instructional
designers should focus on student learning style, age, culture, group size,
task type, communication tools, group composition and group process
development. Strijbos, Martens, and Jochems (2004) suggest that learning
objectives, task-type, group size, and computer support should all be
designed to promote interaction in computer-supported group-based
learning. Group members' satisfaction with group formation depends on
group dynamics and is affected by many elements- entry elements and
process elements as shown in the literature section (Carabajal et al., 2003).
However, few models regarding the design of effective group work in
online environments exist. The challenge that remains is one of examining
the current models and processes that exist for face-to-face group work
instruction and determining how well they work for online group work
STUDENT PERCEPTIONS OF GROUP WORK 87
The roles assumed by instructors and students in online learning
e n v i ronments and in online group situations are also important
considerations. In this study, participants indicated that the instructor role
should include being a facilitator, motivator, and guide. These
recommendations are reflected in the literature. For example, Palloff and
Pratt (2005) recommend that the instructor should act as “a facilitator or
guide, allowing students to create their own learning process through the
phases of collaborative activities” (p. 19). Instructors should be prepared
to design and facilitate the most effective learning experience.
Establishing teaching strategies for helping students' group work may
prove to be useful. Successful collaborative learning does not start
automatically (Oliver & Shaw, 2003).
Participants also indicated that it is important to help students build
virtual team skills. Virtual team skills include “an understanding of
human dynamics, knowledge of how to manage across functional areas
and national cultures, and the ability to use communication technologies
as their primary means of communicating and collaborating” (Durate &
Snyder, 2001, p. 4). Virtual team skills can be developed in an online
course. The most common framework for team development includes a
normative stage, in which group members get to know one another and
decide how they will work together (Palloff & Pratt, 2005). These things
may help the learners engage in meaningful collaborative processes that
allow them to better participate in and develop their group work. In
addition, students should believe in the importance of the group. As one
student stated, “We are one group.”
The current study has several implications for practice and research. First,
there is a need to work with learners to assist them with the difficulty of
communication presented by online environments. Online group work
requires significant interaction among group members, yet current Web-
based learning environments may not fully support opportunities for
social interaction. When learners do not express their feelings, opinions,
and situation, this can create significant barriers to communication. These
challenges should be addressed to improve the quality of learning and
i n c rease students' satisfaction with online group work experiences.
Gaining communication skills to communicate with a diverse group of
fellow students in an online class may be a key to success (Watkins &
Corry, 2007). Assisting learners to establish strategies for overcoming the
difficulty of online communication may prove to be useful.
Second, there is a need to work with learners to assist them with
building familiarity and establishing community in online contexts.
88 STUDENT PERCEPTIONS OF GROUP WORK
Developing a supportive learning community does not occur without
time and effort (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008). Without a supportive
community of students, maintaining high student motivation and
fostering joy in learning can be challenging. Integrating strategies for
community building into the design of the course may assist with this
effort (Song et al, 2004). Continued research related to community
building strategies in a variety of contexts is also needed to enable the
advancement of best practices in the dynamic context of online learning
Third, there is a need for effective instructional design in online
courses to better facilitate group work. The design should focus on the
technological, task, and social dimensions that impact the gro u p
development process (Carabajal et al., 2003). Continuing to explore
design models that are most effective for online collaborative learning
will also help facilitate this activity.
Finally, online instructors need to adapt their teaching methods to
better support students' group work. When learners have conflicts with
their group members or have problems with their group work, they can
feel frustrated. Establishing teaching strategies to facilitate students'
group work may prove to be useful.
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Myung Hwa Koh is an educational researcher at Riverside City College in Riverside,
California. Her research focuses on online group work, evaluation of educational
programs and tools, and accessibility. Dr. Koh earned her Ph.D. in Instructional
Technology from the University of Georgia and her MS and BS degrees in Mathematics
from Yonsei University. E-mail: email@example.com
Janette Hill is a Professor in the College of Education at The University of Georgia in
Athens. Dr. Hill earned her Ph.D. from The Florida State University in Tallahassee. Dr.
Hill's research focuses on community building in online environments and resource-based
learning in formal and informal settings. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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