Group Work in an Online Class / by Portia Zwicker

In December I completed a certificate in technical writing. It took a year (three back-to-back semesters) and it was my first experience with online classes. My teachers used Blackboard and/or dedicated class websites providing syllabi, assignments, schedules, links to reading material, etc.

One of my classes involved group work. The course was titled Documentation Process and Content Management, and it evolved around the completion of one large project. I’ve never been a fan of group work in a school setting; there is always someone who doesn’t pull their weight. Fortunately, this was not the case here. Every student did their part. The problem for me was that I felt I did not learn enough about the course material, and it was mostly due to it being an online class.

I first realized this course was somewhat of a letdown when I received the (hard copy) textbook in the mail. It was huge. And it looked really boring. How was I going to read all of this early enough in the semester to make use of what I learned in my schoolwork? To my surprise, my professor had already thought this might be an issue for everyone. The professor informed us that the class website had a random chapter generator. We just enter our name, and two chapters would be assigned to us. We were then to summarize our chapters on the class blog. Then of course, we had to read everyone else’s summaries. That’s how we all read the “entire” textbook.

After we became experts on portions of the text, we chose team roles, both primary and secondary. Role titles included Coordinator, Editor, Production Specialist, Graphic Specialist and Issue Manager, among others. Some of these roles were ongoing throughout the entire semester, but several (which included mine as Editor), really only came heavily into play at a designated point. The rest of the time I just had to “watch” my classmates do their jobs by simply keeping up with emails and being on top of the progress being made on our project, which was on a website. [Perhaps I could have used this time to read the other chapters of my text, but I was taking three other courses and working part-time, so instead I decided to use the time to be less overwhelmed.]

Needless to say, I did not learn much about the Coordinator, Production Specialist and Graphics Specialist roles. I understand that we had a time limitation (the course ran about 14 weeks). I do feel that if I’d been in a classroom setting, I could have learned a whole lot more from my classmates, both about the chapters they’d read in the text and about their experiences in their team roles. There is nothing quite like face-to-face real time interaction. I haven’t yet worked as a technical writer (although I am applying for jobs every day), and I know that many must work in teams just like this. They probably also work with people they never, or rarely, see. But surely they must have the option of picking up the phone when necessary, and appropriate set timeframes that are based on how long the project should take, rather than how long a semester lasts. So, although I was unsatisfied with my experience with group work in my online class, I’m hopeful it will be much better in the work environment.