Planning for Success with Digital Collaboration

Even before the availability of technology in the classroom, group projects have gotten a bad rap. Students worry that the work will not be shared equally or that other’s actions (or inaction) will impact their grade. Teachers likewise want to ensure that collaboration results in all students accessing the content.

The benefit of using technology to facilitate collaboration is that students’ actions can be easily quantified and qualified. Features like the Revision History within Google Apps will reveal each student’s contribution to an assignment in color-coded format. Posts on a discussion board or LMS platform also make a student’s level of participation apparent. However, what can teachers do to eliminate the need for this “got you” approach and instead be proactive about ensuring the success of digital collaboration?

Carefully and intentionally structuring courses and projects is one way that teachers can ensure students have meaningful digital collaborations, thereby satisfying ISTE Coaching Standard 3a, “Model effective…collaborative learning strategies to maximize teacher and student use of digital tools and resources and access to technology-rich learning environments” (, 2017).

The Argument for Collaboration

Though it may seem like planning for collaboration is more involved than traditional assignments, the benefits are overwhelming. Dr. Patty Shank makes the following argument for collaboration in the higher education classroom: “[S]ocial interaction can positively influence learning, motivation, and problem-solving, and can help learners gain needed support and overcome frustration” (n.d.). I put together the following infographic to highlight Shank’s rationale for incorporating collaborative learning.

Planning for Collaboration

One of my favorite sayings is ‘failing to plan results in planning to fail.’ The element of planning is vital to the success of collaboration. According to Shank, “It takes preparation and practice to design and implement good collaborative activities, and learners need preparation and practice to get the most from them” (n.d.). For guidance in what this planning might look like, I turned to an article written by Jan Engle, a coordinator of instruction development at Governors State University.

Build Collaboration into the Course

Engle suggests making your expectations regarding collaboration clear from the beginning.  In order to ensure that the responsibility for learning is shared by all students in a group, Engle makes participation in group work a grade requirement. Not adequately participating in group work results in an automatic single grade-level reduction (ie- A to B). Engle does this “because really bad group experiences and failure to participate in the online environment just decimate the sense of community we’ve worked so hard to develop up to that point” (n.d.).  

Initially Focus on Process over Product

Even adult learners may enter the classroom unprepared for successful collaboration. Instead of making assumptions about what students can or can’t accomplish as a group, Engle suggests explicitly teaching collaboration. Depending on the age group, this might involve giving students the language to disagree. When I taught English Language Learners, we used the Kate Kinsella framework to provide students with sentence frames. More advanced learners might just need guidance in developing group norms.

Engle (n.d.) asks her groups to collaboratively discuss and then respond to the following questions:

  • How are you going to divide the project so that each team member has a part?
  • Who is going to be responsible for each part?
  • How are you going to communicate during the project?
  • How will members submit their work to the group?
  • What is the deadline for the submissions of individual pieces?
  • Who is going to be responsible for putting the pieces together into one paper [or presentation]?
  • How are you going to handle final proofing?
  • What will you do it somebody does not do his or her part or does not meet deadlines?
  • How are you going to go about answering questions that group members might have about the project?

Scaffold Up to Larger Projects

Beginning the collaboration process with a low-stakes project is a great way to test out the group dynamics and work through conflict. Early in a course, Engle assigns a group project that is “relatively easy and fun in order to emphasize group processes” (n.d.). Once students have the concept down, Engle then moves on to larger collaborative projects. One example of an introductory collaborative activity is an information scavenger hunt designed to introduce students to the basic concepts of research. Engle chose this task because it was easy for students to divide the tasks, was not worth many points, and wouldn’t create much room for conflict since the answers were all either right or wrong.

Engle also suggests introducing smaller collaborative components ahead of time in order to scaffold up to the larger assessment. This might include sharing responses with a partner who is then required to report them out to the class. Or you might include Jigsaw learning where each group is responsible for reporting on a particular text or concept.

Multiple Modes of Monitoring

Peer Evaluation: While students are welcome to contact Engle at any point in time with concerns, they also have a say in their fellow teammates’ final grade. Collaborative project grades are based partly on end result and partly on peer evaluation. That peer evaluation is based on a rubric that all students review. I really appreciate the addition of a rubric component into the peer feedback process because it helps students to make quantitative evaluations and not judge based on personal chemistry or connection. An additional step that I would take is having students justify each line item response on the rubric.

Teacher Observation: Whether students are collaborating on a Google Slide, discussion board, or Wiki page, Engle requires students to give her access throughout the process. One mistake that many teachers make is being involved in the initial explanation of the assignment and then checking out until the final product is returned. By being involved every step of the way, you can head off potential inequities and disagreements. Even with this oversight, it is important to encourage a productive struggle before stepping in. Instead of simply solving the problem for students, consider how you might facilitate a resolution.

Self-Assessment: Though not mentioned by Engle as a monitoring strategy, I believe self-assessment to be a valuable tool in helping students ensure they are collaborating successfully. I have found that students are typically harder on themselves than peers (and sometimes even the teacher). Like peer evaluation, self-assessments can be based on a given rubric. In addition to the rubric reflection, I have also had success with asking students to explicitly share the contribution they made to their group on a particular day.


Just as it is essential to teach students rules and routines at the beginning of the school year, it is also essential to explicitly plan for and teach collaboration. The time investment made up front will pay off when learners are able to fairly and successfully participate in the online learning environment.


Engle, J. How to Promote Collaborative Active Online Learning . Student Collaboration In The Online Classroom, 11-12. Retrieved from (2017). ISTE Standards For Coaches. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Jul. 2018].

Shank, P. Considering Collaboration. Student Collaboration In The Online Classroom, 12-13. Retrieved from


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