Q&A: Online education: Group work is key
Answer: Group work or a Collaborative Learning Team (CLT) is essential to many online learning environments. One purpose of a group is to give students the opportunity to discuss relevant material in a smaller setting. It's often difficult to build peer relationships and address course material in discussion forums. Sometimes, the classes are large and you may respond to a different student each week. However, in a group setting, you can discuss the assignment through forum, email or by phone (usually recommended, but optional). Since in the online environment, we are lacking the "face-to-face" contact, small group projects provide more interaction.
Another purpose of group work is to encourage students to create as a cohesive body. As adults, there are few careers where we won't have to collaborate or work with others (even if it's seldom). Developing group goals, delegating group tasks and due dates and having a basic understanding of how others work provides relevant insight and knowledge for the future. We all learn and respond differently.
A third purpose for group work (and this goes along with the second purpose) is learning how to depend on others and allowing others to depend on you. I (personally) think we downplay the need for support in our society. No one can do everything by themselves. Even the most self-sufficient individuals need help from time-to-time. The help may be small for some and others may need a lot of assistance. Either way, we have to get back to helping others and asking for help when we need it.
While the actual content of online courses is similar to face-to-face courses, some students feel disconnected because of the lack of physical/visual contact. While being in small groups may seem trivial, students often come away with a humbling attitude. There are some great key skills that can be learned from the group experience and transferred into other environments.