Soft skills: how to promote student collaboration in online environments

Submitted by miranda.prynne on Tue, 17/11/2020 - 16:06
Online collaboration is not an innate skill for most students but something that instructors must cultivate. Hugh McFaul explains how he did this through careful design of the content and assessment on his course
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This video will cover: 

00:15 Why it is important to focus on developing students’ collaborative skills online 

01:35 Fostering online student collaboration through content 

02:05 Embedding student collaboration into online assessment 


Hi, I'm Hugh McFaul and I’m director of the Open Justice Centre at the Open University and a senior lecturer in law. I’d like to talk to you about developing positive online collaboration amongst your students.  

So, this was a big issue for us because our project was around getting students to do practical legal work in a clinical legal education setting. So that means giving advice to clients, doing things in groups, perhaps giving seminars in schools or in prisons, and so on.  

So, it was really vital for us that we got our students to work together successfully, to work effectively with the public. So, it’s not been an easy process, and I wish someone had told me what I’m about to tell you now. It would have made my life quite a lot easier. So, firstly, I think it’s important to recognise that online collaboration isn’t an innate skill.   

It’s something that you need to think about how to develop in your students. You can’t expect them to automatically succeed in working together in remote ways, as they have to do in an online environment.  

There are many things about communicating online that can allow for kind of misunderstandings, or some difficulties, or even just the basic problem of trying to develop the kind of team spirit that you might get in a face-to-face environment more easily.  

So, you do need to recognise it as an issue and invest some time and thought into how to address it.   

So, we addressed it in two key ways: one in terms of the content of the module, and secondly in terms of the assessment.  

So, thinking about the content of the module, we use quite a lot of issues to get students to engage in the academic discourse around team working and working in online environments.  

We flagged up to them that this was an issue, in that way. And also we tried to model it in terms of us, engaging with them as the teaching staff and tutorial staff supervising the project. So, we tried to embed this kind of culture of positive engagement in the online environment.  

The next thing, the assessment, was also really important because we tried to embed the evaluation, and valuing positive working relationships in online environments, through the assessment process.  

So students, for example, were given a task of creating a team agreement about how they were going to work together online, and that formed part of one of their assessments. And secondly, they were expected to reflect on how they were developing their team-working skills in online environments as part of their final assessment. 

So, we valued that aspect of the course, made it quite clear to students this was something they should be thinking about and developing themselves.  

So, I think, there isn’t a magic bullet then, looking back on how we’ve developed our project. We did feel that taking time to really work to develop a culture of collaboration in the module has paid off. And it’s made our projects more successful than they would have otherwise been.  

So, it’s not easy but it’s worth the effort to address it properly, and to embed it into your teaching and assessment strategy. So, good luck. 

Hugh McFaul is a senior lecturer in law at the Open University and director of the Open Justice Centre.  

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Online collaboration is not an innate skill for most students but something that instructors must cultivate. Hugh McFaul explains how he did this through careful design of the content and assessment on his course