Forming Collaborative Groups for Online Teaching

Thinking classrooms is heavily predicated on students working on thinking tasks in collaborative groups. Our research showed that how we form these groups (visibly random and frequently) and the size of the groups (two for grades K-2; three for grades 3-12) has a big impact on how well these groups function. Forming random groups creates a situation wherein all students’ abilities are seen as equal and creates the possibility that all group members will be able to think and contribute their thinking to their group. Doing so frequently (about every 60 minutes) prevents leadership roles from calcifying.

The group size limits were a product of maintaining a balance between redundancy and diversity (Davis & Simmt, 2003)—elements needed in order for a group to be generative—while at the same time managing the logistics of social interaction. Redundancy, in this context, are things that a group of students have in common—language, interests, experiences, knowledge. Without these commonalities they cannot even begin to collaborate. But if all they have is redundancy, they will not achieve anything beyond what they enter the group with. To be generative, they also need diversity; the things that individual members of the group bring that are not shared by the others—different ideas, viewpoints, perspectives, representations, etc. The smaller the group the greater the redundancy—but the less the diversity. The bigger the group, the greater the diversity—but the less the redundancy. In f2f environments groups of three seems to have the perfect balance of redundancy and diversity. Although true for f2f environments, this is not true for online environments.

Anyone who has tried to create collaboration in an online environment, however, will know that groups of three often do not accomplish much. This is because these online environments are diversity depleting spaces. In order for diversity to have an effect it must be mobilized—students must share their varied ideas. In online environments, however, many students opt to not share their ideas with many even turning off their cameras and microphones. The diversity that may exist is lost to silence. This can be compensated for in two ways. First, increase the size of the groups. We found that groups of five or six students in an online environment has approximately the same amount of mobilized diversity as a group of three in a f2f environment. As your students get more comfortable with the environment and become more likely to share you can gradually pull back on the group size.

The second thing that you can do is give students time to work on the task on their own before entering the collaborative environment. In the f2f thinking classroom, this proved to create too much diversity for the groups to function well. But in the online environments, providing this time, seems to boost the diversity to a minimum functional level. Again, you can pull back on this as your students become comfortable in the online environment and are more likely to share their raw and untested ideas.

Thoughts? Examples? Stories?