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Team Together- Team Apart

Team Together- Team Apart: Maximizing Remote Student Interaction & Participation

By Vincent Kovar

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As education has moved philosophically toward a cooperative, interactive modality we have been equipped with a variety of computer-based solutions to the obstacles of distance. However, the problems we need to address are essentially humanistic not technological. The participation issues that emerge in the remote learning environment are largely the same as those in an on-ground classroom. Students may feel:


  • A personal sense of isolation that makes it difficult to engage the class concepts
  • A lack of trust, particularly as they work with strangers on group assignments


Clearly these are issues that can emerge in any classroom but they can become particularly pronounced in an on-line class.


Overcoming Isolation

Stay constantly visible- post regularly in the discussion forums and email individuals regularly. Ensure that every student gets at least one personal email from you during each week of the class. These messages should be in addition to regular assignment feedback and might be as simple as just asking a student how they are enjoying the class or you might refer them to specific research sources or outside reading you think they might enjoy. Of course, friendly words of encouragement and praise are always a great way to check-in!


Conference calls and chats can be rather sterile, especially if you have not met in person so make sure to have a short “ice-breaker.” You might even make these humorous but somehow related to the class. For instance, if you are teaching literature, you might make a 5 question, “Cosmo” style quiz that determines which character from the reading class members most resemble.


It also makes sense to vary the times group chats and live-conferences are held, especially if you have students in different time-zones or with different work schedules. Using online polls and other methods is a good way to determine convenient times but ensure that the “tyranny of the majority” does not always inconvenience the same few students.


Building Trust

It is essential that remote learning teams move away from the idea that simply because they cannot see each other working, some of the colleagues will be “skating by.” Groups must also trust you as the instructor. The more frequently there is communication, the more quickly trust will build. To maximize both participation and accountability, you must build trust.


  • Assign several group projects in which each gradually increases both the value for the assignment and the level of interdependence.
  • Break down your objectives to a granular level and give detailed rubrics for each
  • Require that groups write a “charter” which assigns each student both a portion of the group assignment and a team role i.e. project manager, proofreader, visual designer, etc.
  • Require that they include a conflict-resolution plan. Provide referrals to conflict resolution resources but again, require the students to do the heavy lifting themselves.
  • Establish frequent and regular benchmarks where all team members make individual progress reports in addition to the group report. Emphasize that students are communicating with each other. You are merely monitoring.
  • With IM, conference calls and other transitory methods, require that they log and summarize these communications in their progress reports.
  • Restate and reinforce. With every achieved benchmark or timed check-in on the team projects, the instructor should summarize what has been done so far, restate the next immediate objective in detail and describe the remaining steps.
  • Minimize “off-line” communication between yourself and individual team members where the subject is group work. The idea that some students are “going behind the back” of the team may cause an otherwise functional group to degenerate. Train the groups to expect transparency with the instructor.
  • Provide mechanisms for positive feedback between team members but minimize blame channels. For example, give points for team-work such as students praising each other or communicating regularly.


These interpersonal elements are not only critical to the success of an online-class, they are skills that are becoming increasingly valued in the professional workplace. To be truly successful, your students must actively learn to engage other members of a team and quickly build a functional, trusting relationship. 




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Vincent Kovar