Tech for Learning: Groups that Learn

This is the third post in a series about moving the conversation around technology in education from Administration to Learning. You might want to read the first, Learning Pathways, second Video for Learning and maybe the initial post From Ed Tech to Learning.

I’m going to raise some peoples hackles on this one because I want to talk about group work. It’s one of the most difficult, divisive and contentious activities for many people, but it’s also an incredibly important learning experience. For some reason we have this notion that learning is always going to be pleasant, an even joyous experience, which is what many institutions are now designing or ‘engineering’ these days. In reality when we reflect on some of the biggest lessons we’ve learnt, it’s often the opposite. The big lessons often come when it was uncomfortable, exhausting, and not nice. The truly transformative learning experience are more visceral and meaningful because they go beyond grappling with an idea, they bring together physical and social pressures. Group work is like that.

Group Work has a contentious reputation in higher education. For a lot of students, it’s seen as the bane of their existence. In an environment that priorities individual achievement, trying to get an assessment task completed with a group is an incredibly difficult and unfair experience. Attaching oneself to the behaviours of a group of people is really is really difficult for most students. It shakes up the mental model they have about learning, and has the opportunity to shake up their model of learning too.

We’ve been doing it all wrong

One of the main reasons that group work gets a bad wrap is if we’re honest – it’s done badly:
Individual Mark vs Social Labour – The fact that we still seek to apply traditional assessment models, built to measure of individuals performance to that of a social endeavour is going to have consequences. Despite shifting the model of learning to a social construct we still measure according to the individuals, and still seem to wonder why it all seems unfair.
Random Groups vs Expected Outcomes – Groups are often created randomly. Throwing together people with little in common, beyond their chosen unit of study, shows absolute contempt for students as individuals. This method gives no thought to the dynamics or functionality of the group itself, yet expects a very specific outcome to occur. It’s like throwing ants at some building materials and wondering why they don’t build a house.
Reinforcing Social Constructs – The other main solution is to get students to form their own groups. What happens here is that students form groups based on established social structures. Friends hand out with friends and outsiders are pushed further to the outside. Hierarchies and social structures are reinforced rather than constructed, codeveloped and nurtured.
No Support or Management – Despite everything we know about collaborative work we don’t seem to provide much structure for students to actually work together. Just like we do with content, we deliver them into a situation and leave them with it – no tools or direction to support them. Students are required to formulate their own solutions to communicate, meet, share and contribute, all with with varying degrees of success, and much pain and hardship.
Disagreement & Dispute – And when we get to the point where things do start to fall apart, we provide no mechanism to manage the process of disagreement and dispute. There are no tools to build consensus or process into the situation. Students lack the tools and often the skillset to resolve issues or make decisions on their own and so everything starts to fall apart.

Simple, Stupid Groups

My reading of this is that one of the biggest problems is that we keep creating simple stupid groups. Simple in that we do the least amount of work possible to form them – randomise or get them to sort it out. Our systems don’t apply and intelligence in creating “random” groups, they’re just sorted via an algorithm and expected to learn. If it’s teachers establishing groups then they are making judgements based on slivers of their students personalities. If it’s students they choose by reinforcing existing paradigms and social constructs. If we want group work to function, and provide rich social learning opportunities then one of the things we need to do is move beyond simple stupid groups.

This is where I want to come back to Technology for Learning. If we wanted groups to work for learning, then what would we do different?

Create Smarter Groups

One way is to make the formation of groups smarter. I did some initial work on this with a tool we did some work on called Grouper_Plus_. It was a tool that included a survey for students to fill in that would help define what groups students would go into. Using that information we could then create groups in different ways. We could aggregate students by the choices they made so like students would be grouped together. We could also disaggregate students, so break them up based on their choices.

What this fairly simple functionality allowed a teacher to do was create groups that were smarter and could work together better. The system itself didn’t really care what you asked students – it just did the sorting for you, allowing you to quickly adjust groups depending on size and the survey parameters.

Through the survey you create groups that could be based on:
– geographic proximity
– time and day availability
– degree they were studying
– personal preferences
– areas of interest
– grades they were pursuing
– roles they wanted to take

We designed the tool to be as flexible as possible, it was up to your imagination what metrics you wanted to capture in the survey, and then prioritise that information to create groups. We did some initial prototyping and a lot of problem solving to work out how the hell this would work – those two paragraphs took about a year of work to get to! – but we never got it all working before the money ran out. And typical of a lot of Ed Tech, it sits on the shelf not doing anything.

Support and Structure

The other way I think we can harness tech to improve group work is by providing tools that improve the structure and support of group work. Instead of sending students out into the wild saying – “return in a month with a body of work” – we can equip them with a process the tools that will allow them to do just that.

One of the typical issues with group work is reaching consensus (and to be honest the world as a whole could use a bit more!). So a tool that guides students through their decision making process, making it traceable and transparent too, would make significant in-roads for one of the most common problems with group work. This kind of tool would also allow staff to step in and support students when necessary, at the point the issue needs resolution, not after conflict has started and things have broken down.

Getting people to work together is hard, but having them do it through a process is a useful exercise. Providing students with a tool to develop tasks list, associate responsibility, track work done and to do so in a way that is transparent allows not only the team but teachers to see how the group is functioning. That kind of data can help improve the design of tasks, improve workflows and reduce the friction students feel. We have to understand that often the problem lies in the group, but how they have chosen to undertake the work, or understand the expectations put on them.

In the it’s pedagogy that drives group work, but I think that technology can transform it. Technology can help to reshape it into a positive learning experience rather than a negative one. I think it’s important that part of our learning experience includes exposing students to social learning situation. It’s also important to take people out of their comfort zone, but not to force them into situations that may be harmful or damaging. The risk of avoiding group work is that we have to conform to making everything comfortable and easy. So much weight is put on student feedback on staff evaluations and this really has to stop. It’s a measure that conflates learning with the happiness of students and that’s poor practice.

One of the reasons why I think that group work is important in education is that it’s vital that we include social learning. Online education in particular has been the domain of the individual for too long and we have forgotten how important connections to others are in how and what we learn. There is value in learning to work together, not just in the mastering the course content. The social aspects of group work are the antithesis of what today is called “personalised learning”, which isn’t tailored education but industrial scale automation where students learn in isolation based on what the algorithm tells them.

Groups are human. All that disfunction exists because humans are complex beings. Using tech to make them a little smarter and a little more supported means that we can make the work a lot better.


So that’s where I was going to finish up for the moment. I do want to add a couple more posts to this series but I want to let these ones stew a bit. What I will do though is write up some thoughts on some glimpses of Ed Tech for Learning that I’ve seen over time. I think it’s important to note that my critique is a generalised one, and it doesn’t take into account how various technologies are being co-opted into learning in new and innovative ways. I think all that stuff is great, I just want more that’s designed specifically for learning too!

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

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One thought on “Tech for Learning: Groups that Learn

  1. Pingback: From Ed Tech to Learning | Heart | Soul | Machine

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