Improving Teamwork Through Online Synchronous Discussions

Photo of professor Robin FowlerHere is a short video on this teaching strategy.

Robin Fowler, College of Engineering, co-teaches Introduction to Engineering, a course in which student teams design, build, and test products for professional scenarios (e.g., Company X needs a remote-operated vehicle to investigate subglacial life at the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica). Teams need to apply course concepts to evaluate competing designs relative to client-generated objectives and constraints. However, teams often pursue suboptimal designs due to poor group process.

To enable more equitable and conceptually sound design decisions, Fowler shifted team meetings from face-to-face discussions to synchronous, text-based online discussions, during which team members are geographically dispersed. Fowler creates a Google Doc for each team, including each student’s individual project idea and a decision-making matrix to be completed as a team. Students simultaneously access these materials and negotiate decisions at preordained times using the commenting and chat features in Google Docs.

Preliminary analyses of chat transcripts and student surveys suggest that this approach increases student engagement and participation in design decisions, particularly for students easily marginalized in such courses (e.g., non-native English speakers, women, and historically underrepresented minorities). Because Google Docs allowed Fowler to monitor group dynamics remotely, she was able to respond to misconceptions and intervene constructively in ways that were not logistically possible when the teams met face-to-face.

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