Collaboration and Group Work


Working with others is part of any programme of study; rarely do we work in isolation as academics, researchers or students. This guide takes a look at the tools that are available so support working with others across a range of scenarios and contexts. There are strong links with our other eGuide on Communication and no doubt there will be some crossover in your everyday practice.

One of the key points for this eGuide is to distinguish between collaboration as simply knowledge gathering or asset repositories and collaboration as a positive act towards a shared goal. Knowledge gathering and repository building have their place in education but do not require active collaboration. Users can log in to a system and upload a piece of knowledge without concern if anyone else uses that knowledge or not.

Friedman & Friedman (2014) recognise that social media has significantly changed the way we work across projects and advocates that modern learning is about communication, collaboration, creativity and community. Active collaboration is where two or more people are in a symbiotic relationship working (communication) together (collaboration) on a shared or common goal (community) where the work undertaken is beneficial to both parties and results in the creation (creativity) of new content. Tools that allow people to work together in this active and creative way will be outlined in this guide.

We are reliably informed that “Communities drive change: they build consensus and share action” Stodd (2015) and as such they are a powerful force in an educational journey. However Stodd goes on to say that without shared purpose and shared values, the technology will have little or no coherence.

So what role does technology have to play in supporting or developing collaboration? In her chapter on students’ use of mobile devices in leading learning, Bird (2015) identifies 4 principles that students expect educators to take into consideration when delivering mobile learning: Easy, Attractive, Downloadable and Expected.

These are good starting points when considering suitable approaches to collaborative tools to engage students whether on mobile devices like tablets, phones and laptops or on fixed desktop machines. It is also worth noting the decline of the desktop machine across the globe and how it maps directly to the rise of the tablet as a preferred device.

The graph below shows that over the 2 year period between February 2013 and February 2015, desktop PCs accessing the internet have dropped from 78% to a low of 55% in December 2014. Tablet use in the same period doubled from 8% to 16%. This needs to be taken into consideration when planning learning and how people work together. Planning learning that utilises mobile devices whether as responding devices for polling or quizzing or as research tools that can be used to gather, share and work on documents together. Even the simple act of encouraging students to take photos of notes on whiteboards or of slides using their smartphones, can engage them and change the dynamic in the classroom.

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This eGuide breaks down the tools into different categories for easy classification depending on the type of work you’re undertaking.

Tools for collaboration can loosely be divided into online and offline tools and synchronous and asynchronous. It is acknowledged that traditional non-digital student collaboration can take place asynchronously and offline; the exchange of information for a shared goal does not necessarily require a digital tool for achievement. However there are potential pitfalls with this approach such as duplication of effort and resources, inefficient use of time and lack of cohesion, that the introduction of technology to the process can resolve.

The following tools have been selected to address some of these issues and have been categorised the following way; writing, sharing, talking, publishing, educational tools, and conferencing tools.

Writing tools

Collaborative writing tools allow students to work together on documents, share documents and publish documents with the minimum of effort. These types of tool allow many students to work together in the same document, at the same time, creating a ‘mashup’ document of thoughts, opinions, edits and contributions. Each author can comment, edit and resolve issues in the document and their comments are tracked, time stamped and can be ‘rewound’, ‘accepted’ or ‘rejected’ depending on the software. Due to their nature, these types of tool are often available online only which needs to be planned into the session design.

Google Docs are part of the google tools suite and whilst free to use, they do require users to have signed in to a google account of some kind to start. Google Docs are single documents rather than collections which immediately distinguishes them from a wiki or a blog. Their real power is that they allow for synchronous editing of documents effectively allowing multiple contributors to see changes being made to a document in real-time. This is especially effective in allowing groups to work on ideas and projects together from anywhere there is an internet connection.

Document Collection Tools

Document collection and management is very much part of the collaboration process. Gathering documents together in a single place to review, discuss and develop is made easier with technology and there are many tools that will allow students to do this either online or offline and then synchronised at a later date.

Wikis are a useful tool as a starting point for collaboration. Unlike blogs, they usually have no one defined owner and utilise a simple markup language (wiki markup) or a rich-text editor to write the content. Wikis can be a single page or a collection of pages with navigation like a website. Wikis are useful for creating spaces that others can easily view without any special permissions. They are usually collections of web pages so require setting up on a web server or creating through a VLE such as eBridge. There is a Wiki tool in ebridge and more information on how to set up your own wiki on eBridge is available here.

Cloud Storage tools. There are many suppliers of free cloud storage that will allow students to create shared folders that they can upload and download documents to and from. Tools like DropBox, Google Drive, Box, OneDrive all allow you to register for free drive space and share folders either by email invite or link. Most of the tools work by installing a set of folders on your computer which you simply add files to and from. The helper tools that get installed then pick up the changes and sent them to the cloud when they get an internet connection. This allows you to synchronise when online and then work on documents offline. All of the tools mentioned have apps to work on mobile devices.

These types of tool allow you or your students to create repositories of files that are easily distributed, shared or received. It is worth remembering that as these spaces are in the cloud, you would be advised to share non-sensitive information only. For secured sharing of content, you are advised to use the VLE.

Voice and Video tools

Voice Over IP (VOIP) tools are fast replacing telephone calls and even mobile calls as a preferred method of communication. Initially they worked only over WiFi or wired connections, but more and more they are working on 3G+ networks. They use the data channels to communicate not voice channels and therefore significantly reduce costs for the end user.

With VOIP you can make audio calls, video calls, send instant messages, share screens or files from within the app. Not only that, you can do so with multiple people in the same call. So as a collaboration tool VOIP provides synchronous communication provided there is a reliable internet connection. Obviously for video you need a webcam, to hear audio you need speakers or headphones/headset.

Skype is by far the most popular VOIP tool, but it does require an app to be installed on the machine. To Skype someone you need to know their Skype-Name. You can also buy call credit to call normal telephone and mobile numbers using Skype. Skype is available for all mobile devices. Skype can handle up to 25 people in a joint call which are now free. Skype is also available on gaming consoles.

Google Hangouts are provided via a web browser or app and are very popular for informal meetings and collaborations as they are so easily set up. To work with Google Hangouts you need a Google account which is free and a web browser. You do not need to install any special software which is one of the reasons for their increasing popularity. Hangouts can have up to 10 people in them at any one time.

Messages is for Apple devices only but it has some similar functionality to Skype and Hangouts for collaboration work. You can create group video calls and group iMessages that will allow you to collaborate, share pictures, files and videos with other Apple users. However, students can also connect with Google Hangout users too on their Mac. By connecting a Google account to the App, you can bring up a ‘buddy list’, see who is online and create group calls or messages.

WhatsApp is a similar tool that works across all mobile devices and allows free messaging between other WhatsApp users. Unlike Messages, WhatsApp does not have a desktop tool at the time of writing.

#Slack is a team communication tool that according to Hern (2014) is gaining popularity amongst businesses for allowing teams to set up easily and integrate with a whole range of other tools like Twitter, DropBox, Google Drive, GitHub, Google Hangouts. It is fully searchable and unlike email is instant.

Social Media

The integration of social media into everyday life makes it a very powerful way of collaborating with others across a range of platforms. Primary social media tools are Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn however they each perform very different roles from each other and can be utilised in different ways for collaboration. The most important aspect of using social media professionally is to make the distinction between professional accounts and personal ones. Often these boundaries can be blurred and it helps to have a conversation about respect and managing online personas will help to keep the collaboration professional. Often staff maintain two accounts, one personal and one professional. The exception is LinkedIn which is considered to be a professional tool rather than a social tool.

Facebook allows projects or organisations to share and work together as a team. Groups can be created that can be open or closed to allow public or private working spaces. It has an instant messaging tool, video chat, group chat which all make it useful way of exchanging ideas and information. On the group pages you can set up moderators to help keep the pages up to date and of course there are comments and posts that can be added. The biggest concern with Facebook is that you have to add students as ‘friends’ which would give them access to your personal ‘social’ profile. If you are looking to use Facebook professionally, it pays to set up an account on your work email address and only use that for collaboration projects.

Twitter is a micro-blogging tool. It is a publishing tool that only allows you 140 characters to say what you need in a single message or ‘tweet’. Its power as a collaboration tool is that you can link together messages with ‘hashtags’ for example ‘#AppleWatch’ and all messages that have that hashtag will be pulled into a single list. This means that you get topics that are all using the same hashtag ‘trending’ which means they are being discussed the most on twitter right now. Trending happens worldwide or by country. You can also search for hashtags and save those searches to bring up conversations on a single topic.

Conferences and events often set up hashtags #Digifest for example, to bring together all tweets from that conference. Tweets can be viewed asynchronously and reviewed.

People on twitter have a twitter username ‘@name’ and you can create lists of people who tweet on similar topics. You may also find yourself being added to lists, for example ‘Educators’.

Twitter, although limited in characters, is a powerful force in supporting building networks and communicating with people in a particular field of study. Most Twitter users get notifications of mentions and direct messages (DMs) to their phones, often with alerts. Combine this with the fact that many leaders in their field are on twitter and you can easily find their @username, you have a direct line of communication to them. You may not have or be able to get their phone number or email address, but they are contactable through their @username although they may choose to ignore, mute or even block you if they don’t want the contact; so use it wisely!

Educational tools

All of the products discussed so far have not been designed as educational tools specifically but have been adopted by educators who could see the potential for collaboration or group work. The following tools have a wider educational purpose, but elements of them can be used for collaboration, sharing or group work.

PebblePad is a portfolio tool, a content management tool, an assessment tool and a personal tutoring tool. It can be a walled garden of invited participants only or users can choose to share documents with a wider audience through invites. Workflow management through forms or documents that require the group to work on them in a particular order is one of the key features of PebblePad for group work. Unlike a GoogleDoc where everybody can write at the same time with no order, PebblePad can require each member of the group to contribute to  ‘their bit’ in a set order. This means group work can be structured and organised with the potential to see where the group dynamic succeeds or fails.

Webinar tools

Webinar and conference presentation tools differ from VOIP and group meeting tools as they are designed to be lead sessions and more didactic in approach. They provide a greater degree of control to the person or people leading the session who can facilitate the discussion to provide the best experience for the group. Webinar tools are usually designed around the presentation of an image or slides with an audio feed and often a video feed from the presenters webcam.

VoiceThread is a product that fills the gap between the didactic webinar and the VLE content. VoiceThread allows students to participate in class much like a webinar by leaving comments, but with a difference. Participants can comment live like a webinar, but by leaving voice or video comments instead of text threads or discussions. In this way, participants can engage with the content being presented to them, comment, feedback and reflect all through audio or video comments that are captured real time. In this way, context, emotion and meaning are better conveyed in the discussion, much like in a real face-to-face seminar group.

Individual licences are available from the vendor’s website.


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Wenger, E., Pea, R. and Brown, J. S. (1999) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge University Press.


Writing Tools

VOIP and messaging Tools

Social Media

Educational Tools

Webinar tools

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