Now is not the time for group projects

Remote group work does not foster collaboration

By Catherine Hurley, Collegian Contributor

As students push through a third semester of primarily remote studies, obligations to their family, jobs and extracurriculars make scheduling time for group work a difficult task.

Generally, I am opposed to group work of any kind, an opinion I formed long before last March. I’ve always disliked placing my grades in the hands of other students and find that the final submission is never a cohesive product, but more often a mishmash of ideas, design tastes and writing styles. These problems are only heightened when group projects move online. Group assignments that require collaboration outside of a scheduled class time should especially not be assigned this semester.

Professors who assign mandatory group projects often believe that working with new students is a valuable experience that will prepare them for the workforce. You cannot choose your coworkers or assignments then, so why should you get to do so now? For starters, in an office environment, groups are confined to that space and time frame. When everyone goes home, they hopefully leave their work behind, creating a healthy balance between work and home life. When you are working or taking classes from home, there is no such separation. Many jobs have become permanently remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so there is a case to be made about learning to collaborate online, but not under these circumstances.

The UMass Amherst Center for Teaching and Learning posted an article highlighting strategies that professors can use to assign successful online group projects. The article promotes the need for clear instructions, check-ins and communication, but fails to acknowledge that students are working on vastly different schedules, sometimes even in different time zones. A professor can do everything right when setting up a project, but if one or more group members are unable or unwilling to collaborate online, the entire group is in jeopardy.

Remote group projects are antithetical to the work that many professors have done to provide asynchronous options to their classes and ignore the many novel obstacles facing students this semester. If a student is so swamped with personal obligations that they cannot attend synchronous classes, it is unlikely that they will be able to schedule additional meetings with peers outside class time and pull their weight in a group project. And that is understandable. This is a difficult time for many students, and nobody should be additionally inconvenienced by the burden of peer expectations.

There is an illusion that Zoom makes life more flexible. That studying from home, attending recorded lectures and online club meetings should open up student schedules. Add to that no commute to classes or dining halls, no pitstop for coffee and no possibility of arriving late to a class. All of these should make a remote semester more manageable, right?

Sadly, I have not found this to be true. It’s easy to underestimate the workload of an online semester but the lack of separation between school and home life makes it increasingly difficult to prioritize academics. Add to that any of the part-time jobs and other familial obligations that you are typically removed from while on campus. Turns out remote work is just as time consuming as it would be in person. Just because you can multitask while lying in bed does not mean that you have more hours in the day. When everyone is flexible, nobody is.

Further, the fatigue of sitting in back-to-back Zoom meetings makes it difficult to carve even more time for online group work. At least group work that is assigned during scheduled synchronous classes doesn’t further add to students’ screen-time. Plus, it saves us the added stress of coordinating a convenient time to meet outside class.

Tying students’ grades to peers that they will never meet face-to-face is the wrong way to foster collaboration in an online classroom environment. Professors are free to require in-class discussions and factor participation in their grading, but mandating group work outside of class is an unreasonable burden to place on students this semester.

Catherine Hurley can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @cath_hurley.