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Small Group Work Strategy for Online Courses

Small group work provides learners with the opportunity to discuss content, share ideas and problem solve with others (Kemp, et al.). Learners also acquire experience by presenting their own ideas as well as considering ideas put forth by others. A variety of possible group formats can encourage and provide opportunities for interaction within small groups.

One such format is the discussion group which allows learners to think about a subject under discussion and present their views. According to Kemp, discussion within the small group is usually on higher intellectual levels (specifically analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) than is possible solely with the recall of the information. The educator may play various roles within the discussion group format.

Another format described by Kemp, is guided design. It can provide and encourage interaction in small groups. This type of group focuses on developing the learners' decision-making skills as well as on teaching specific concepts and principles. Participants work to solve open-ended problems which require outside class work to gather information. This format encourages learners to think logically, communicate ideas, and apply steps in a decision-making process. Learners are also required to apply the information they have learned, exchange ideas, and reflect on suggested solutions. The instructor's role is to act as a consultant to the groups.

Role playing is another format available for use with small groups involving dramatization by group participants of a situation relating to a problem. Each participant acts out a role as he or she feels it would be played in real life. This promotes an understanding of other persons' positions and their attitudes as well as the procedures that might be used for diagnosing and solving problems.

Kemp, et al. also describe a games format which requires two or more groups to compete in attempting to meet a set of objectives. The game is organized under a set of rules and procedures and information is provided that requires decision making and usually follow-up actions. According to these authors, most instructional games are typical real-life situations. Those utilizing the games format can avoid confusion within the groups by making the rules, procedures, and objectives of the game clear and concise.

Computer-mediated communication (CMC) offers several distinct benefits for small group work. First, it allows small groups of students to work independently while still having access to the instructor (McComb). In some cases, where it is difficult for all members of an online class to meet synchronously for group work, four to five students can be organized according to their time zones, making it possible to find a convenient time to participate in a synchronous communication learning environment. Larger groups can benefit by communicating asynchronously via e-mail or via a listserv.

A second benefit of CMC for group work is that it equalizes control among participants, (providing) identical access to and control of the CMC environment (McComb). Factors such as geography, gender, or handicapping conditions do not tend to disadvantage learners in this environment. Thirdly, CMC allow the instructor to respond directly to the questions and needs of particular groups without taking the time of other groups not affected by a problem or situation (McComb). According to Ahern and Repman, CMC permits a level of interaction that is not usually possible in the more traditional classroom.

This text has been adapted from Creating a Powerful Online Course through the Use of Multiple Instructional Strategies