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Use of integrated technology for collaborative group assignments


Shobana Dissanayeke, Biological Sciences and Rebecca Lewis, E-learning

College Teaching Excellence Commendation 2021

Groupwork has long been an important part of the BS1021 “Becoming a Bioscientist” skills module delivered to the Biological Sciences first year cohort. However, COVID-19 socially distanced and isolated students necessitating an electronic alternative assessment that could bring students together. We used the collaborative tools available within the Microsoft 365 suite to develop an innovative science communication assignment that ran through MS Teams.

The aims of this assessment were to introduce and enhance a range of subject specific and transferable skills and encourage students to start developing their personal development plans. Students were put into random groups of five. In week three of term 1, each group were randomly allocated an original scientific paper on the impact of climate change on one of three topics: drinking water salinity and maternal health, fungal growth and its effect on the ecosystem, or on crop yield. The groups were asked to summarise the paper and use it as a starting point to develop a website on their specific topic. As students were unable to work face-to-face, it was important that this assessment was digitally inclusive allowing students to foster a sense of community despite being isolated from each other.

Each group was provided a private Teams channel to undertake the coursework. Additionally, students were encouraged to keep reflective diaries in MS OneNote notebooks also within Teams. Lectures, providing students with guidance on analysing their papers, were live streamed via Teams on a weekly basis. Emails via the BS1021 moodle forum were sent out each week to guide students on linking the lectures with the coursework as well reminding them to reflect on skills that were being acquired.

From week six, papers had been summarised and students moved onto further research and by week eight creating their websites. Webpages were created within MS SharePoint, also integrated into Teams, which provided an intuitive and simple template system meaning students did not have to spend significant time learning how to create their website. The SharePoint sites could also incorporate resources created elsewhere (e.g. Youtube videos) which helped groups to manage workload, foster digital skills and encouraged students to critically evaluate the external resources and their suitability for scientific audiences. A bespoke rubric was created to support students in reflecting on the aims of the assignment and in understanding what was required from their website’s design.

Teams allowed students to file-share and work on the website simultaneously. They could also communicate asynchronously via Teams chat or live via a Teams audio or video call. The asynchronous chat meant that communication between the students could occur at times that were convenient to each student due to their time zones or internet availability. SharePoint and OneNote documents could also be downloaded as needed so that students could work on parts of the project offline if necessary, synchronising with online versions once connectivity was available. Technical support was provided via a Moodle forum monitored by staff, where students were also encouraged to respond; supporting one another to help build digital skills and answer key questions. Engagement with the coursework was high with peer marking identifying only two students out of 163 who did not engage. Teams MS Insights showed that 86% of students communicated using Teams.

 

Evaluation

The educational benefits of group work are well known. However, the COVID-19 lockdown effectively isolated students from their peers. Collaborative technology, often associated with digital industries, had to be quickly adapted for use in academia. This project has shown that the MS Teams integrated package can be successfully used in group work assignments allowing students not only to gain experience in the traditional collaborative working skills associated with groupwork, but also in new digital communication skills.

The educational literature has established the benefits of group work in enhancing transferable skills [1][2]. The recent Office for Students Gravity Assist report notes that, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, “there are many opportunities for enhanced digital skills to be used to improve graduate employability, improve links with local communities, and address national skills shortages,[3]” so it is important to equip our students with the tools they need to thrive in a diverse world.

Science journalism and information dissemination have changed drastically over the last few decades with more people obtaining scientific information electronically. This innovative assessment provided students with opportunities to experience and engage in skills that are necessary for the digital age. Another important aspect of this coursework was its effect in bringing students together at a time when they would have felt particularly isolated.

The final websites were of exceptional quality and demonstrated students’ interest in the topics as well as creative and communication skills. Websites were shared with staff. Dr. James McEvoy, Director of UG Education, School of Life Sciences and the Environment commented that,

“Students really spread their wings in this creative assignment, conveying the science carefully and attractively, and using interactive elements such as quizzes and polls. It was a pleasure to mark these sites.”

Reflective commentaries and feedback from students highlighted the benefits that they gained from undertaking the coursework.

 

References 

[1] Eva K.W.(2002) Teamwork during education: the whole is not always greater than the sum of the parts. Medical Education, 36, 314-6 

[2] Thorley, L. and Gregory, R. (1994) Using Group-based learning in higher education, London: Kogen Page. 

[3] Office for Students (2021) ‘Gravity assist: Propelling higher education towards a brighter future - Digital teaching and learning review’. Available at https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/gravity-assist-propelling-higher-education-towards-a-brighter-future/

 

 

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