PBL, group work and ME

Maybe I’m not cut out for group work?

This was how I was feeling at the start of our first group online PBL project. I found the whole process of getting in touch with people I didn’t know, had never met and starting to produce work together very stressful and surprisingly time-consuming. There were so many barriers to success – synchronising times, finding technologies that worked, agreeing common goals.

At the same time, my attempts to engage in the OpenFDOL group work failed when my group collapsed and was disbanded by the facilitator!

It was getting hard not to take it personally…

“Distributing the cognitive load…..”

I like the idea of group work and felt I had the technological skills and tools to succeed. Constructing knowledge through social interaction is an important part of the learning process (Chernobilsky, Nagarajan, Hmelo-Silver 2005) and I was definitely pleased with our finished product – the beautiful images created by Nadine. We worked asynchronously on google docs and synchronously on google hangouts and old-fashioned telephone. I found the sharing of information and solving problems together rewarding and enjoyable because of the shared responsibility. (Busfield and Peijs 2003)

But flexible…..?

So why was I finding it so frustrating and time-consuming? Reflecting back on the process I found that my frustration came from two directions. I felt I had to work immediately to complete the work needed by my group because I worried that others would be waiting for me. That led to work overload at times and resentment of the task. Secondly, I found sometimes I couldn’t progress when I did have time because I was dependent on others. Those two factors combined meant my work felt totally dependent on other people’s timeframes and I did not have any control over it. So all flexibility was lost!

This would, presumably, be the same for everyone in the group – although I accept I probably worry about it more than most sensible people would!

So are online group work and flexibility mutually exclusive? Or do I need to find different strategies for making it work? Certainly work carried out by Chernobilsky et al in 2005 suggests that collaborative, asynchronous learning does require more dependence on others which would seem to go against the flexiblility usually associated with online courses  (Anderson & Simpson 2012; Creelman & Reneland Forsman 2013)

Making it work

The group work definitely improved by the second task as we learnt from our experiences and, importantly, I think, got to know each other. Was our face-to-face meeting the trigger for this? I felt it removed a lot of my fears and helped to foster trust and confidence in each other.

We started to establish mutually agreed working practices but I think we need to work even more on this. “I will do this task by this date” allows other people to build their work around you and start to reclaim that flexibility.

For me, that helps me regain some control over my time and manage my expectations.

The support of the facilitator was also a key factor although I envisage we will need that less and less as we become more used to this type of collaborative work.

So I shall continue to reflect on this as the module progresses not only because of its implications for me as a learner but also as a teacher who wants to foster these collaborative practices in students.


BUSFIELD, J.; PEIJS, T. Learning materials in a problem based course. Materials Education, v. 12,  2003.

CHERNOBILSKY, E.; NAGARAJAN, A.; HMELO-SILVER, C. E. Problem-based learning online: multiple perspectives on collaborative knowledge construction. Proceedings of the 2005 conference on Computer support for collaborative learning: learning 2005: the next 10 years!, 2005,   International Society of the Learning Sciences. p.53-62.

CREELMAN, A.; RENELAND-FORSMAN, L. Completion Rates–A False Trail to Measuring Course Quality?: Let’s Call in the HEROEs Instead. European Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, v. 16, n. 2, p. 40,  2013.

Online Learning: it is all about dialogue, involvement, support and control – according to the research (Coomey, M. and Stephenson, J. 2012)

SIMPSON, M.; ANDERSON, B. History and heritage in open, flexible and distance education. Journal of Open, Flexible and Distance Learning, v. 16, n. 2, p. 1-10,  2012. ISSN 1179-7673.


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