10 design principles for creating engaging online group work

We have been developing eWorkshops for many years. Our clients and their learners love them. It is a delivery model that works wonders in a particular niche in the e-learning sector.

We use this model when it is deemed important that people bring their own life or work experiences to the learning event. It is an excellent way to support collaborative learning – not just ‘sharing’ experiences, but rather the in-depth solving of problems.

eWorkshops are best for subject areas where

  • there aren’t many right and wrong answers,
  • there are a lot of ‘grey zones’, and
  • answers depend on people’s own context.

In fact the same reasons why you would have a face-to-face workshop instead of the typical stand-alone e-learning modules. If you want to add strong ‘human’ touch to your e-learning then eWorkshops may be the answer.

The bulk (or all) of the work is done asynchronously to allow participants to step back and prepare their contributions. They love that. We also find that asynchronous learning events work so much better than webinars when learners work from different time zones or have multiple life-work commitments and find it hard to commit to a set day/time to ‘meet’.

We construct the eWorkshops around a backbone of really interesting team tasks. That’s the most challenging part of the design process. It’s essential to get this right.

Here are the 10 design principles that we keep in mind during this process:

1.    Design well-structured problem-based tasks

The problem at the centre of the learning task as well as the story behind the problem should be messy and complex, just like real life. Yet the task itself needs to be well structured and meaningful.

One of the main reasons of low retention in some online “collaborative” (I put this in quotation marks because a lot of e-courses are in fact not truly collaborative, even when they claim to be) courses is lack of interesting tasks and content. Have a few in-depth conversations with the subject matter expert and work together on providing contexts and tasks that are taken straight from the work place.

Drama and controversy make learning more exciting – if possible, look for these elements and bring them to the forefront of your story and task. This will also inspire people to share their own experiences.


2.    Give participants clear directions

What are people expected to DO? Who is doing what? When?

Any ambiguity in the instructions will create anxiety and cause both the participants and the e-facilitator to waste precious time.

Use clear language and invite a few colleague instructional designers to review this thoroughly before releasing your work. The more eyes look over this, the better…


3.    Clearly describe the expected deliverable

What are the teams working towards? It needs to be something tangible – something you can touch/print. Have a close look at how similar tasks are completed in real life, most likely in participants’ workplaces.

What tangibles might support the work process when solving this problem for real? A form, a two-page strategy, a 10-point plan, an e-mail to a decision maker, a budget, a framework, a presentation to the Board, a one-page briefing to field staff,… These are just some of the many examples of deliverables that could be end points of the collaborative work. Ensure it is manageable though – a 5 page text is not.

Remember, discussion is a means to an end. Borrow heavily from real life to clearly define the ‘end’. The discussions will be much more in-depth than a simple ‘sharing’ exercise.


4.    Give a deadline and suggest a workplan

The main tasks in eWorkshops are collaborative so it’s important for people to move at approximately the same pace to address different levels of a problem within a few days. If not, there can’t be meaningful collaboration.

Depending on the target group, we set a deadline on a Friday or a Monday. E-facilitators are asked to set that day aside to give comprehensive (woven) feedback to all teams.

Two weeks to complete a team task is ideal. People who may be unable to access for a few days can still contribute several times. Conversations have the time to develop and deepen. The time is short enough to be motivational.


5.    Ensure team roles support in-depth discussion of the issues

Roles are tricky. They help teams divide the work. Yet many times role-based team work waters down to team members doing their part of the work and then looking at adding it up with other people’s work before presentation. There is often not enough discussion/negotiation when the work is divided. It’s more like a collection of individual work.

Keep the more general roles, such as team leader or presenter (and be clear that they also need to contribute to the discussions), but avoid dividing up the work. Everyone needs to have a say about all aspects of the problem and the suggested solutions. Solving a problem is much more interesting that way.


6.    Design tasks that allow the e-facilitator to shuffle teams

Especially when we use one main story to carry the different team tasks in a eWorkshop, it may be tempting to keep teams together throughout. After all, as the tasks are related and one is building on another, that would make perfect sense.

However, we observed that shuffling teams is much more motivational for the participants. They love working with other people every time. It gives yet other perspectives on the subject and topics. It also provides increased networking opportunities. Keep this in mind when designing a series of team activities.


 7.    Explain your rationale to the learners (why is working in teams to solve this problem so important?)

What is the added value of doing the task in teams? Explain how the team task supports the learning objectives of the course, how you’re emulating real life, how different perspectives are important to really “get” this. Add a paragraph in the task introduction to get this buy-in.


8.    Give people a break

Participation in team tasks is fun and interesting. It is also demanding because participants need to log in daily to build on each other’s work. If the total eWorkshop time allows it, give people a one-week break (with some individual work) between two team tasks.


9.    Provide feedback support to the e-facilitator

The e-facilitator will not have the advantage of talking to the subject matter expert who helped the eWorkshop designer come up with the stories and tasks. The designer needs to go beyond the design and ask the subject matter expert how she would support this task and the discussions around it. What are the different scenarios people will most likely come up with. Where might they struggle? What would she say? Etc.

The e-facilitator – although also a subject matter expert – will appreciate a write up that explains the rationale behind a specific story and task, as well as an insight in how and why it was designed this way. We call these facilitators’ notes and upload them as hidden files right under each team task.


10.  Keep it open:  teams should be visible to all

Moodle – just like many other LMSs – has a group activity feature that hides other groups while the learner works in her group.

We don’t use this feature in our eWorkshops.

We found it demotivates people when they can’t “see” the other people anymore. It leaves a vacuum. When they’re only a click away, they still feel the buzz of the whole group, even though they are not involved in the work done by the other teams.

Why would anyone want to hide other people’s work anyway? If the tasks are complex and draw in participants’ experiences when solving the problems, we can only see benefits when people have a quick peek at the work of other teams as well.

eWorkshops are not competitions and people are not graded. We are working with adults – anything closed or hidden brings back memories of restrictive school rules and is not conducive to nurturing a professional learning environment.

Why I love Moodle…
Celebrating a dream team of e-facilitators


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