Combining Technology and Group
Learning: The Thorny Issues Involved in a Group Web Page Project
by Carolyn A. Kapinus
Introduction to the Project
In my Sociology of Women course, I require students to take advantage of technology and engage in cooperative learning through a group Web page project. Students work in groups to research a topic related to the course and compile the information in a group Web page that is then linked with the course Web page. Each group's project has three parts:
This assignment has three learning objectives. First, it encourages research on an issue related to course content and fosters “information literacy.” Information literacy involves identifying and formulating a specific research topic, accessing the appropriate data source, evaluating the information, and synthesizing the data into a useful form (Breivik and Jones, 1993; Workshop on Information Competence, 1995). Second, the assignment requires students to compile information in a Web-based form that may be used by others. Finally, the project provides an opportunity to learn to work in groups.
I provide a list of topics and have students rank the topics according to their interests, and then I place students into groups accordingly. Each student writes part of the overview and contributes a Web site link and a reference for future reading. Students work together to assign each group member a sub-topic to research. In addition, each student volunteers for tasks such as compiling information from group members for a project progress report or writing transitions among various parts of the topic overview. Students must specify the division of labor at the start of the project and give me a list of the tasks for which they are each responsible.
This assignment presents several challenges. The instructor must consider how to overcome resistance to technology through group work, foster student skills in critically evaluating Web resources, and deal with problems in grading collaborative projects.
Overcoming Resistance to Technology through Group Work
When asked “How comfortable do you feel using the Internet?,” one student responded, "I hate computers. I ending up messing things up and then I feel dumb." This comment illustrates the resistance some students feel toward technology. While some students are very proficient at using the Internet and creating their own Web pages, others may have little experience in using Web-based resources and may be uninterested in Web-based assignments (Pychyl et al, 1999). In addition, students who do not own their own computers may have difficulty accessing computer labs during peak use times (Althaus, 1997). Placing students into groups can alleviate some of the difficulties associated with having a class composed of students with varying levels of computing experience. However, instructors must place students into groups with care. Having a project group composed entirely of students who have little experience and/or confidence using the Internet can be very problematic. Before I place students into project groups, they complete a questionnaire about their computer access and their experience in using the Web and creating Web sites. I use this information to place students into heterogeneous groups so group members can teach and learn from each other.
Most of the members of my course have never created a Web page for a class assignment and feel very apprehensive about this project. I provide detailed handouts about how to put their project on the Web, and the course Web page includes a template illustrating how the project should look. Other instructors may also consider having students take advantage of Web-conferencing software such as e-Room and FORUM. Providing clear instructions on the technical aspects of the project and a model of the project relieves a great deal of apprehension for individuals who have never attempted to create their own Web page. Unfortunately, making sure all students have the technical knowledge to complete the project may reduce some of the time instructors have for teaching course content. One way to avoid this may be to utilize computing services workshops outside of class. After completing the project, students upload their projects to the Web and the course Web page links to their project Web pages. [do you create this link or is it already there--and inactive--before the students put their pages up?]Students can then see other student projects through the course Web site.
Fostering Critical Examination of Web Resources
In addition to student resistance to technology, another problem with this type of project is that students are often not critical consumers of information in general. The ease of producing Web pages has led to an explosion of resources on the Internet, and students often do not know how to choose a legitimate Web source (Hammett, 1999). In assigning a project which requires some Web research, professors much teach students to evaluate their findings. This project creates a perfect opportunity to teach students to examine Web sites critically. Following Hammett’s suggestion (1999) students receive a handout with specific questions to use in evaluating each Web site:
I discuss the handout during class and instruct students to reconsider using a Web source if they answer no to any of these questions. Another way to deal with this issue is to give each group examples of Web resources and have the groups explain to the class how they can discern whether the resources are questionable or legitimate.
Furthermore, some students are also more adept at Internet searches than others, so instructors may need to devote time explaining how to do an effective Internet search. Another possibility is for students to work in pairs to conduct Internet searches, fostering group skills. An alternative to using class time for this purpose is simply to provide a handout with instructions on how to do an effective Internet search. Another option, as suggested by an anonymous reviewer of this paper, is to have students use a tutorial on search engines such as the one found at http://vetdev.cvm.tamu.edu/peer/CellBiol/TeacherPages/searching_the_web.htm.
Dealing with Problems in Grading Collaborative Projects
An instructor using this assignment must also overcome difficulties in grading group work. As one of my students noted in her evaluation of the project, "In every group there is always one person that doesn't want to participate but wants to receive the same grade as the group." Ennerson et al (1997) [this name is spelled "Enerson" in the reference list. Please indicate which is correct.] suggest making multiple assessments of group members’ work and progress throughout the project timeframe. These assessments reinforce personal accountability and provide more information to instructors for calculating project grades. I require students to do short assessments during the course project to inform me of any difficulties they have with the project or other group members. Students also turn in parts of their project periodically so that I can check their work. This also allows me to make sure they choose appropriate Web sites for their topic. Periodic assessment of group work reduces, although it may not eliminate, the problem of "free riders." I am satisfied that free riders are sufficiently penalized since final grades are based on both my evaluation of their part of the project and the students’ evaluation of their group members’ contributions.
Benefits of the Project
The benefits of this assignment outweigh the problems when instructors pay particular attention to crafting and assigning the project. Requiring an assignment that involves synthesizing information and making the project available on the Internet for others provides a wonderful opportunity for students to practice writing for a general audience. As one student noted, “I think the most enjoyable part of this project is seeing our work put on the Internet.” Additionally, instructors can easily adapt this project to a variety of courses or change the assignment to an individual project. The proof of the value of this project is found in students’ responses. Anonymous evaluations indicate that 32 out of 36 students would recommend keeping the group Web project in the course. The projects are enjoyable to read and allow students to further explore topics related to the course. Several students noted in their project evaluations that the structured format provided a model for effective group work. One student responded, “This is something different from what we have done in other classes. I think putting it on the Web is a good idea."
Althaus, S. (1997). Computer-mediated communication in the university classroom: An experiment with on-line discussions. Communication Education, 46, 158-174.
Breivik, P. S., and Jones, D. L. (1993). Information literacy: Liberal education for the information age. Liberal Education, 79, 24-29.
Enerson, [This name is spelled "Ennerson" in the text. Please indicate which is correct.] D. M., Johnson, R. N., Milner, S., and Plank, K. M. (1997). The Penn State teacher II. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching.
Hammett, P. (1999). Teaching tools for evaluating World Wide Web resources. Teaching Sociology, 27, 31-37.
Pychyl, T. A., Clark, D., and Abarbanel, T. (1999). Computer-mediated group projects: Facilitating collaborative learning with the World Wide Web. Teaching of Psychology, 26, 138- 141.
Workgroup on Information Competence. (1995). Information competence in the CSU: A report. CLRIT Task 6.1. Long Beach, CA: California State University.
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