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Virtual Collaboration and Groupwork in Online Learning and Assessment

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COVID-19 brought many challenges for higher education that are still being worked through. For our students and educators, collaboration and groupwork were forced to take on a new virtual dimension. Face-to-Face student collaboration and groupwork strategies needed to be re-envisioned for the virtual environment and given institutions commitment to equity, it is clear that there would be challenges that needed to be addressed in the move to online with the million-dollar question being how can we continue to reap the benefits of collaboration and groupwork for students’ learning in an online or blended environment?
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Virtual Collaboration and Groupwork in Online Learning and Assessment
An ACODE Whitepaper July 2021
Dr Sherre Roy, Central Queensland University
Professor Michael Sankey, Charles Darwin University
Background
COVID-19 brought many challenges for higher education that are still being worked through. For our
students and educators, collaboration and groupwork were forced to take on a new virtual
dimension. Face-to-Face student collaboration and groupwork strategies needed to be re-envisioned for
the virtual environment and given institutions commitment to equity, it is clear that there would be
challenges that needed to be addressed in the move to online with the million-dollar question being how
can we continue to reap the benefits of collaboration and groupwork for students’ learning in an online or
blended environment?
Introduction
This white paper is a consideration of factors raised by universities prior to and during the ACODE 83
Workshop on Virtual Collaboration and Groupwork in Online Learning and Assessment, held online in April
2021. The workshop offered the opportunity for participants to share and discuss how things like
collaboration and groupwork in learning and assessment may have changed due to the rapid shift online. It
also considered the affordances of online and blended environment, and more specifically what
equity/inclusion challenges have arisen from this, and how various universities have addressed these
challenges.
Prior to the workshop, a 10 question survey was distributed to the ACODE Membership with a focus on
gaining insights into the collaboration tools currently being used in the learning and teaching context. This
information was drawn-on during the workshop and used as discussion starters. The survey was completed
by 32 Australasian Universities. An extension activity was also conducted during the Workshop that sought
to identify further issues organisations faced in the design and delivery of virtual collaborative learning.
This paper will first share insights from the initial survey, followed by further insights gained from the
extension activity. It will conclude by drawing some high-level ideas drawn from both activities.
Pre-Workshop Survey Findings
The majority of responding institutions are heavily invested in centrally funded tools with Learning
Management Systems, Zoom and Microsoft Teams being the key centrally funded tools available and used
by staff and students for collaboration online (Figure 1). Figure 1 shows the range of collaboration tools
available for use by institutions. These ranged from Discussion Forums in the ubiquitous LMS (although 2
institutions did not identify discussion forums as a key feature) to a broad range of less widely used tools.
Virtual Collaboration and Groupwork in Online Learning and Assessment An ACODE Whitepaper July 2021
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Figure 1: The centrally funded tool/s used for staff and student collaboration online.
When asked, institutions identified that the most widely used of these tools was the LMS Tools/Discussion
and Zoom (Figure 2). Comparatively, despite institutions providing central funded tools, not all teaching
staff make use of the tools available. For example 30 institution (Figure 1) indicated they provide LMS
Discussion Forums, but only 19 of these institutions (Figure 2) indicated that the LMS discussion tool was
widely used. A similar patter is seen for Zoom.
Figure 2: Central funded tools most widely used.
Tools That Could be Better Utilised
Of the tools listed, a high proportion of respondents, when asked which tools could be better utilised,
identified the potential of Microsoft Teams for collaboration, highlighting the following:
The potential levels of flexibility and sophistication, but there is so much in it we are only just scratch
the surface.
Some are particularly interested in Teams because this is what they expect their students will use in
the business world.
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The integrated nature of Teams and its capacity as a collaboration platform, including Stream,
document sharing, online meetings, and other features, providing both document-centric and
"conversation-centric" collaboration capabilities.
Some noted the advantage of persistent chat, video calls, screen sharing, breakout rooms, user
tagging, files storage, assignment scheduling and integration with other MS O365 applications e.g. One
Note, FlipGrid, Whiteboard, et al.
Three institutions noted that Teams is growing in popularity and will continue to grow.
Technical Challenges
Despite the potential advantages of Teams, respondents also highlighted the technical challenges their
institutions were facing in implementing Teams:
Issues of dual tenancy were raised that make it harder to integrate students data into 'Class' teams.
It is in the early stages of rolling out at the institution and there are still a number of technical issues
with making it available in the way we want for the purpose of learning and teaching.
For some it’s available but not being used much yet, while some are still evaluating it as a possible
virtual classroom solution for the whole university.
One person mentioned the non-persistent nature of some tools (whiteboard etc.) that require groups
to prepare documents to share, leading to the loss of work if if one forgets to save.
If Teams was properly supported for, teaching, development, misc meetings etc., all would be using
same tool which would lessen the support load across the uni and potentially efficiency would
increase,
Main Business Drivers
The main business drivers for the combination of virtual collaboration and teamwork tools relate to prior
investment in and the integration of those systems used by students and staff. Other drivers were
pedagogical in nature concentrating on learning and teaching and graduates being job ready. For example:
LMS integrations were seen as really important.
Existing availability in the LMS and existing partnerships with Microsoft for enterprise-wide
productivity software that are centrally supported.
Teams was highlighted due to all Staff and Students having access to Office 365 and Zoom and because
they are reliable.
Every unit of study has an LMS course, so by default discussion boards become a place for study.
Finances and a disinclination to embrace additional or alternative tools at this time.
Emergency remote teaching and cost savings, as many already have the O365 tools and LMS
21st Century skills as part of the core graduate learning outcomes, to ensure our students are job-
ready. Moving away from boutique tools to more professional tools.
A TEL strategy and set of standards for digital learning that ensures resources, activities, assessment,
support, and technologies are current, relevant, purposeful, and supported.
The focus on active, collaborative and authentic learning, teaching and assessment
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Primary Tools Used for Assessment
When asked about tools used for assessment, the trend for the use centrally funded systems was
consistent with LMS Features, Zoom and Teams topping the list. Of course, new players in this field, tools
like Teams and Feedback Fruit, have only appeared in the L&T market over recent years.
LMS Features x29 (91%)
Zoom for oral presentations and monitoring x6 (19%)
Teams x4 (13%)
Bb Collaborate x3
FeedbackFruits x2
Other single responses including, Cadmus, Perusall, Mural and Google
Student Equity Issues
Given the rapid move online and institutional requirements to support student equity, the survey asked
how institutions assessed collaboration/assessment tools for digital equity purposes? The respondents
indicated that assessment strategies ranged from poorly and ad-hock (6 responses) to active compliance
with WCAG standards (4 responses), the use of the ASCILITE TELAS Framework and/or compliance with
other country laws and standards was seen in 3 responses.
Five respondents (16%) explicitly mentioned that technology committees took an active interest, with input
from accessibility/disability groups, who consider aspects such as bandwidth and internet availability. In
another three cases LMS tools needed to be deemed accessible. This meant actively working with vendors,
testing etc., and using tools like Bb ALLY to provide alternatives formats.
Other interesting elements mentioned by multiple institutions included: The testing for visual and auditory
accessibility; Testing of bandwidth and computer system requirements; Small group pilots with a number of
processes, checklists and partnership with other business areas to assess suitability; Regular review
mechanisms, guided by policy and procedures; Evaluations when considering new tools, including specific
questions in the procurement process; Considering closed captions and transcription options; Bandwidth
was also considered for those who have internet issues; and the potential the usability features in MS
Teams provide in this space.
Other Equity Considerations
In considering other equity factors, beyond access, when one plans for technology integration, it was
pleasing to see that six institutions (19%) explicitly mentioned that they did consult with Access, Wellbeing
and Equity colleagues, Disability Services and student representatives for requirement gathering and
evaluation process. Five institutions also actively conducted academic PD in the context of student
diversity, including through teaching Universal Design for Learning (UDL), multiple representations of
concepts, celebrating cultural/social/gender diversity in teaching contexts, understanding students’
needs/backgrounds, negotiated curricula and assessment. Another three institutions explicitly referred to
Digital Literacy assistance and good orientation for students along with PD being available for teaching
staff. Having said that, it was highlighted that there seemed to be an expectation that students have their
own suitable device to access systems.
It was noted by four institutions that this was done on a rather ad hoc basis - depending on the tools and
the context, but that it is becoming a more prominent as more centrally governed technology were being
adopted. Interestingly, it was observed by four institutions that selecting more mainstream and easier to
Virtual Collaboration and Groupwork in Online Learning and Assessment An ACODE Whitepaper July 2021
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use tools assists with supporting students who have a disability because options are included in technology
packages for accessibility during implementation. Two institutions mentioned working with Academics on
their Learning Designs and encourage considering equity beyond access and inclusive digital assessment
practices.
Support Resources for Students
The resources provided to students to help address access and the use of ICTs included fifteen (47%)
institutions who identified ICT support services, technology spaces and hubs, accessibility services,
counselling services, and support for personal computers and training to help students with their private
devices. Supported by online portals that included resources for learning from home, university supported
technologies for learning, and more, where 4 (12.5%) said that they only had limited general resources and
limited central funding provided, rather just provided advice as to where students can find funding. Some
Schools did pay for transcriptions.
A couple (2) highlighted the role of the Library in developing support resources (+ people) to address
student issues and the availability of Student support online in they are not on campus, with digital literacy
training embedded in orientation. A further two institutions stated that they had ‘standard resources,
supports and services, including, but not limited to: general support and advocacy, examination
adjustments, assignment extension recommendations, study skills assistance, alternative formatting,
assistive technology and equipment.
Three institutions identified that they did provide elements such as transcripts of recordings, working with
lecturers to make some materials available in different formats or provide these in advance. A further three
identified using Bb Ally to generate alternative file formats.
Interestingly, eight (25%) institutions identified bursaries and loan schemes were available to assist with
acquisition of ICTs, and devices and dongles for short term loan from the library, etc.
ACODE 83 Workshop Extension Activity
The workshop activities explored the issues institutions faced in the design and delivery of virtual
collaborative learning. 62 issues were collected (Appendix 2). Participants were asked to nominate the
most pressing issue for their institution. Of the 62, 26 were identified as pressing issues. The top three
were; pressure of time and managing workload (16.92%), lack of familiarity of new ways of learning and
teaching online, including technology and attitudes (11%), and perception by academics that this is a
conversion from face to face to online rather than creating new experiences (11%). Two of these pressing
issues raise the move between face to face and online and new ways of designing and delivering curriculum
alluding to the need for academics to make a paradigm shift in their thinking and teaching practice.
Adapting Muilenburg & Berge (2005) Eight Barrier factors to theme the responses, the majority of
responses were congregated into three main themes; Academic skills (44.62%), Time and support (22%),
and Motivation (15%).
Academic skills capture the perceived barriers to virtual collaboration and assessment due to a lack of
academic learning and teaching skills examples being; lack of familiarity of new ways of learning and
teaching online including technology and attitudes, teaching and assessing and practise teamwork skills,
and aligning to learning outcomes, and lack of professional development to plan and design scaffolded
experiences.
Virtual Collaboration and Groupwork in Online Learning and Assessment An ACODE Whitepaper July 2021
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Time and support was the next most popular theme capturing the perspective on whether a lack of time or
support from people in the workplace causes barriers to ability to implement virtual collaboration and
assessment. The key issue being pressure of time and managing workload.
Motivation relates to the perception by educators that would affect their motivation to embed virtual
collaboration and assessment. The key issue in this theme being the perception by academics that this is a
conversion from FTF to online rather than creating new experiences.
Concluding Discussion
We began the whitepaper indicating that institutions would face challenges when re-envisioning
collaboration and groupwork for the virtual environment. We asked the million-dollar question of how can
we continue to reap the benefits of collaboration and groupwork for students’ learning in an online or
blended environment? The pre-workshop survey and subsequent workshop extension activity have
provided a snapshot of the challenges and issues. Technologically, institutions had access to tools that
would enable moving collaboration and groupwork in learning and assessment to the virtual environment.
Centrally funded Learning Management Systems, Zoom, Microsoft Teams providing the core suite of tools
available.
Student equity issues were identified as a major new driver to adopting certain tools that incorporated
newer accessibility features, such as text to speech, automated transcript generation and student support.
Within that, it was identified that practices such as applying Universal Design for Learning principles and
the importance of coordinated centralised IT and Library support where fundamental to providing a
complete package of support for students, along with the provision of alternate formats of learning
materials.
The workshop activities, in exploring the issues institutions faced in the design and delivery of virtual
collaboration and groupwork, clearly highlighted that human resources were the most challenging aspect of
reaping the benefits of collaboration and groupwork in a virtual environment.
Many institutions provided additional support for staff as an emergency remote learning response to
COVID-19. However, what some institutions have found is that their educators are not necessarily prepared
for a more permanent paradigm shift for creating new experiences in virtual environment. Predominantly
the lack of skills in and familiarity with new ways of learning and teaching online including technology and
attitudes, and planning, and designing and scaffolded experiences was identified. The other key challenge
for staff in relation to time and support was that some institutions were undergoing major restructures that
included the loss of staff, that was placing additional workload on remaining staff.
Realising the benefits of collaboration and groupwork for students’ learning in an online or blended
environment will require investment in developmental opportunities for academics that help them to
embrace the paradigm shift and expand their knowledge and skills for learning and teaching in the virtual
space.
References
Muilenburg, L.Y., & Berge, Z.L. (2005) Student barriers to online learning: A factor analytic study, Distance
Education, 26:1, 29-48, DOI: 10.1080/01587910500081269
Virtual Collaboration and Groupwork in Online Learning and Assessment An ACODE Whitepaper July 2021
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The Australasian Council on Open Distance and eLearning
Please cite: Roy, S., & Sankey. M (2021). Virtual Collaboration and Groupwork in Online
Learning and Assessment: An ACODE Whitepaper’. Australasian Council on Open
Distance and eLearning (ACODE). Canberra. Australia. (15 July). Available from:
https://www.acode.edu.au/mod/resource/view.php?id=5194
Any queries related to this paper should, in the first instance, be addressed to the ACODE
Secretariat at: secretariat@acode.edu.au
Virtual Collaboration and Groupwork in Online Learning and Assessment An ACODE Whitepaper July 2021
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Appendix 1: Survey Questions
1. What centrally funded tool/s does your institution use for staff and student collaboration online?
You may choose as many as you use, and add others below if necessary, by also selecting 'Other'
2. Which of these tools would be the most widely used?
3. In your opinion which of these tools could be better utilised and why?
4. What are the main business drivers that have influenced your institution to use this combination of
virtual collaboration and teamwork tools?
5. Which of the tools you selected would be specifically used to run course/unit assessments in?
6. How does your institution assess collaboration and assessment tools for inclusion and digital equity
purposes?
7. How do you factor in equity, beyond access, as you plan for technology integration in your
course/units or teaching spaces?
8. What resources do you provide students to help address equality/inequality to access and the use
of ICTs?
9. Any further comments you would like to make that would help us gain a better understanding of
your context, to any of the above questions?
10. Which institution are you from? (This will not be made public)
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Appendix 2: Poll Issues list
Pressure of time and managing workload
Facilitation of learning technologies
Dropping away of project-based environment (no planning)
Equity issues that arise when encouraging synchronous
engagement
Blurring line between learning design and academics, and
responsibility
Understanding of Universal Design for Learning Principles;
Ability to build rapport and reluctance of students to
engage when online;
Challenge in enabling flexible learning journey in
collaborative learning for students;
Lack of familiarity of new ways of learning and teaching
online including technology and attitudes
Perception by academics that this is a conversion from
FTF to online rather than creating new experiences
Ability to give scaffolded/equitable experience for all
students
Dealing with practical classes via online collaboration;
Academic ability to design a complete learning journey (not
just using LMS as repository)
Challenge when developing learning outcomes using
groupwork;
Ensuring design leads use of technology
Understanding the benefit of using the tools;
Good blend of experience when both online and on campus
students
Cognitive load when redeveloping for online learning;
Lack of professional development to plan and design
scaffolded experiences
Teaching and assessing and practise teamwork skills, and
aligning to learning outcomes;
Appetite by students to experience something more
transformative
Influence of self-organisation of students within the
university's learning environment;
Equity of design for collaboration
Distraction during online synchronous sessions;
Delegation and communication within the student groups
Mindsets of academic staff when engaging with
groupwork
Lack of understanding of student cohort
Retrofitting on-campus to online
Technical complexity of setting up online collaborative
work
Skill sets of students when shifting from FTF to online
Student engagement in online delivery mode
Inequity of groupwork design more broadly
Burden of choice for pedagogical approach and ed tech
options
Student fatigue in the overuse of Zoom breakout rooms
Complexity of use of learning space (including space and
tech);
Access to tools and technology (internet/bandwidth)
Cultural and physical barriers that influence student
engagement;
Technical complexity of setting up online collaborative
work
Challenges when designing for authenticity;
Tool availability and limitations of LMS;
Approach to assessment;
Inconsistent use of tools by academic staff;
Different levels of learning;
'Emergency Service Model'
Upgrading skills in technology for students & staff;
Ability to measure engagement of students online;
Privacy and data issues
Access by students to correct tools;
Not enough tools that address wide enough range of needs
(privacy/data issues)
Influence of prior experience (or lack of) by students;
Fairness and perceptions of fairness
Logistics of teaching online;
Disadvantages for online/hybrid students
Need to plan for specific learning engagements;
Levels of digital literacy in student group
Unpredictable planning environment;
Accounting has not been consistent nationally. Some Unis
did not have to have proctored exams while others were
still forced to.;
Challenges associated with academic integrity
(tools/data/importance);
Tendency to generalise & issues associated with this
Impact on understanding of what a 'campus' is?
Fostering relationships between academic staff and
learning designers
Influence of self-organisation of students within the
university's learning environment
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Appendix 3: Top 26 issues themed.
Poll responses by Theme
% of total
Academic skills
Lack of familiarity of new ways of learning and teaching online including technology and
attitudes
10.77
Teaching and assessing and practise teamwork skills, and aligning to learning outcomes;
6.15
Lack of professional development to plan and design scaffolded experiences
6.15
Academic ability to design a complete learning journey (not just using LMS as
repository)
4.62
Ability to build rapport and reluctance of students to engage when online;
3.08
Challenges when designing for authenticity;
1.54
Cognitive load when redeveloping for online learning;
1.54
Equity issues that arise when encouraging synchronous engagement;
1.54
Approach to assessment;
1.54
Burden of choice for pedagogical approach and ed tech options
1.54
Challenge in enabling flexible learning journey in collaborative learning for students;
1.54
Cultural and physical barriers that influence student engagement;
1.54
Understanding of Universal Design for Learning Principles;
1.54
Complexity of use of learning space (including space and tech);
1.54
Challenges associated with academic integrity (tools/data/importance);
1.54
Time and support
Pressure of time and managing workload
16.92
Blurring line between learning design and academics, and responsibility
4.62
Motivation
Perception by academics that this is a conversion from FTF to online rather than
creating new experiences
10.77
Mindsets of academic staff when engaging with groupwork
4.62
Disadvantages for online/hybrid students
3.08
Fairness and perceptions of fairness
1.54
Technical problems
Tool availability and limitations of LMS;
4.62
Not enough tools that address wide enough range of needs (privacy/data issues)
1.54
Technical skills
Technical complexity of setting up online collaborative work
3.08
Inconsistent use of tools by academic staff;
1.54
Skill sets of students when shifting from FTF to online
1.54
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Article
Full-text available
This article reports on a large‐scale (n = 1,056), exploratory factor analysis study that determined the underlying constructs that comprise student barriers to online learning. The eight factors found were (a) administrative issues, (b) social interaction, (c) academic skills, (d) technical skills, (e) learner motivation, (f) time and support for studies, (g) cost and access to the Internet, and (h) technical problems. Independent variables that significantly affected student ratings of these barrier factors included: gender, age, ethnicity, type of learning institution, self‐rating of online learning skills, effectiveness of learning online, online learning enjoyment, prejudicial treatment in traditional classes, and the number of online courses completed.