Building Effective Groups for Online Computation

John Mathewson, Mathematics and Computer Science, Pasadena City College

Building effective groups and effective ways to monitor the progress of groups are what I imagine will be the most difficult aspects of teaching computation online. For a number of reasons, some students have enjoyed taking coding classes online more than in a classroom, so that's an aspect of teaching computation online that probably won't be a big issue. This could change, however, if the coding is more freeform and investigative rather than prescriptive.

My experience with teaching computation using computers is limited to teaching in-person students some simple, yet important and effective, tools in Excel, mainly in the context of introductory statistics, but a little in calculus, too. Building effective groups was not hard in person since I could easily observe the interactions between students in a group and see where their work was taking them, offering them guidance as necessary.

If this dynamic is harder to observe and correct online, it may be better to have a series of well-defined milestones which the groups would each need to aim for. Just as swimming in the ocean is a harder prospect than swimming in a pool for lack of a good feel for where you are with respect to a goal, providing these markers can provide groups with a clearer idea of what approach to take and how to do it.

Additionally, since my intention is for each group to work on the same problem, bringing everyone back together when all the groups have reached one of these mile markers is a good way to consolidate our understanding of the problem and will aid in providing direction for the next mile marker.

While I can't see any value in appointing leaders for each group, I can see value in creating a division of labor within a group. So in addition to providing mile markers, detailing the expectations of each group as well as dividing these into equitable pieces can help keep a group on track.

The result then is structure. If structure is built into a group problem for online computation, it will be easier to ensure that each group remains effective and it will be easier to determine if progress is being made by each group.

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