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Case study 22: Group Working On Web-Based Distance Learning Courses, Leeds Metropolitan University

Overview

Assessed group work designed to encourage communication amongst distance learning students on Master’s programmes.

Keywords

Group working; distance learning; project scenarios; group assessment

What is the background /context to the initative/activity/practice

Leeds Metropolitan University School of The Built Environment has a suite of MSc programmes.  One of the suite is the MSc Facilities Management.  This is a web-based distance learning course delivered via a Blackboard VLE. The MSc Facilities Management has been so delivered for approximately 14 years and is believed to have been the first fully-web delivered MSc in the world.

Some modules are common between MScs; for example the module “Managing The Property Asset” is common to the MSc Facilities Management and is intended to be delivered on a new MSc currently being developed.  There are two intakes per year onto the MSc Facilities Management; thus for each delivery there will be two cohorts of Facilities Management students and, in time, one cohort of students from the new MSc, taking this module.  There are a number of students located overseas, particularly on the MSc Facilities Management. 

Group work was first introduced onto one module on the MSc Facilities Management.  This has been extended to a second module.  In due course, group work will be further extended. 

Describe briefly the activity/initiative /practice

Group work on the module "Facilities Information and Operations Management" 

Assessment comprises three pieces of coursework: an individual project involving two detailed analyses of operations in the students’ workplace, plus a group project concerned with Business Continuity Planning (BCP). For this group project, students are given a scenario:  they are facilities managers for a local authority.
 
Students are allocated into groups of four by the tutor.  Working as a leaderless task, groups:

  • Identify 5 potential risks. (8 Marks)
  • Agree a risk assessment methodology.  (8 Marks)
  • Select one risk and prepare a contingency plan and Standard Operating Procedures. (8 Marks)
  • Carry out a financial appraisal of the contingency plan.  (8 Marks)

One single report is submitted, clearly identifying who had responsibility for each task.  Students decide amongst themselves responsibility for each task and a method of collating and submitting the work.

Group work on the module "Managing the Property Asset" 

This module is assessed by two individual projects, one group project and an unseen examination. It is taken by students on the MSc Facilities Management and the MSc Building Surveying; three different cohorts of students.  The group assignment is conceptually similar to the assignment described above for “Facilities Information and Operations Management”. 

Students are allocated into groups of four by the tutor.  They are given a scenario:  they are property managers for a large financial services organisation. Scenarios are deliberately chosen to give a balance between private and public sector organisations.  In this scenario, the organisation is seeking to open an office in another country, and the decision has been narrowed to two cities.  Different groups have different cities to compare, for example, one group may be comparing St Petersburg and Moscow, another group may be comparing Mumbai and Delhi, another group may be comparing Sydney and Melbourne.

For each city, the group has to research and report on:

  • Office Rents and the Office Market.
  • Residential Rents and the Residential Property Market
  • Services and Transport.
  • Quality of Life

Each of these reports carries 5 marks, for such items as depth of research, correct referencing, use of authoritative sites.

A further 5 marks are given for the group part of the work; this is the use of illustrations and tables, conclusion etc. Again, students decide who will undertake each task and how to collate and submit the final report.

The report is submitted using a wiki.  An example of a completed wiki is given.  Students prepare wiki pages for each of the above research topics, plus a wiki page for the conclusion and a wiki page for any additional information.

Additionally, in both of the group work assessments, individually, each student has to reflect on the experience of communicating/working at a distance.  This reflection is worth 5 marks.

Total marks for the assessment:

Individual research topic - 5 Marks
Shared Conclusion and other information - 5 Marks
Individual Reflection - 5 Marks
Total - 15 Marks

What made/makes it “Master’s” level?

The group work is a "leaderless task".  Students are working as collaborative teams and have to decide for themselves how to allocate the various tasks and responsibilities.  They are then expected to perform the task with minimum supervision.  They only refer back to the tutor if there is a query of interpretation of the brief.  At undergraduate level such collaborative tasks are monitored much more closely by staff, to see how they are progressing.

Within the terms of the project brief, students are expected to be able to undertake their own independent research.  They can find their own resources and judge those resources for appropriateness and authenticity. At undergraduate level, whilst independent research is encouraged, staff start them off with some sites to look at first. Expecting this high degree of independent/co-dependent work is at the heutagogic end of Hase and Kenyon's (2000) PAH continuum, as is appropriate to Master's level.

The tasks themselves are quite realistic and could be expected to be actual projects for a senior i.e. Master's level, Facilities Manager.   Students report that they have undertaken similar projects, including collaboration at a distance, in the workplace and they have now incorporated some of the practice from the assessment, i.e. the use of wikis into their work practice.  Undergraduate students, of course, are also given typical workplace tasks in assessments.  However, either they would be tasks which are more suited to their likely level of work; lower level projects; or if they are higher level projects, undergraduates would not be in a position to directly apply the learning to their work practice; or, indeed, be able to necessarily appreciate how the project could apply to their future work practice.  For example, staff run some experiential learning modules with undergraduates in which the students have to reflect on a case study.  At undergraduate level, the students would be expected to contribute to the decision making process in the project, for example by analysing data, providing information to the decision makers. At postgraduate level the students would be expected to be the decision makers and to reflect on the professional judgements they have made.  An example of the marking sheet used is at the Annex.

What challenges were encountered/overcome – in terms of mastersness – and what lessons were learned that would be helpful to others?

A high degree of independence is expected of the students.  Students may come onto the course from differing backgrounds, and either through academic background, or professional qualification.  Anecdotally, students from a professional background, especially service personnel, take to this very readily.  Students from a more academic background seem less sure of the process, though this has always been resolved by peer support from the other group members.

Potential problems that were anticipated were:

  • Students being disadvantaged if other members of their group failed to deliver their part of the group work; or being unfairly advantaged and getting a “free ride”
  • Unfair distribution of groups.  As far as possible the groups are selected by the tutors, so that students are unlikely to be able to meet face to face.  For example students are in mixed groups located in different countries.  No student researches cities in their own country.
  • Cultural issues.  The MSc FM attracts students worldwide, with significant numbers of students in certain countries.  As part of the assessment, students provide a reflective study of their experiences on the module.  Although overwhelmingly favourable, some students would not disclose their feelings about the experience, even though prompted to describe if they felt nervous, isolated, supported, comradely etc.  A significant number of students from one culture would not explore or express these feelings, even though it was confidential between the tutor and the individual student.
  • There was confusion about whether the reflection was solely about the technical aspects of communicating by the VLE discussion Board compared to email or MSN Messenger etc.   One module was meant to include reflection on participating in a distance project; the other module was meant to include reflection on the technical merits of communicating by Discussion Board or other means.  Significantly, nearly all of the students from one particular culture would only reflect on the technical aspects.

The main aspects to consider are, therefore:

  • Make the assessment challenging and realistic.
  • Provide for different tasks within the project so that students can collaborate, yet not be totally interdependent.  No-one gets a “free ride”, and no-one is disadvantaged if another member drops out.
  • Exercise care and judgement when allocating groups.

Perceived Benefits (For Students & Teaching Support Staff)

Students report that:

Participating in group work overcomes some of the perceived isolation of distance learning

  • Working with students from different countries/cultures broadens their experiences of working with others.
  • Researching countries alien to the group provides a common experience to the group, the subject cities are equally alien to all participants; and provides a further international dimension with an insight into the cities concerned.
  • The students reported that the process enabled them to practise modern workplace skills.  These include undertaking a “webquest” to find reliable evidence from the web, and the ability to collaborate on a project at a distance.  Feedback has anecdotally suggested that distance collaboration of this nature already occurs in some workplaces, or is expected to become practice in other workplaces.  The use of the wiki has also been favourably commented on; at least two participants have independently commented that they will be introducing wikis as a collaborative tool in their workplaces.

Tutors have reported that:

  • Students support each other; particularly weaker students who may be reluctant to approach the tutor for advice, but may approach other students.
  • Group work acts as an unofficial tracking system, alongside the official tracking system.  If a group feels that a member is not delivering as they should, then the group can encourage that member, whilst the tutor may not be aware of any problems.

The student response to the group work in “Facilities Information and Operations Management” was so encouraging, with the rare experience of students asking for more group work, that it was then introduced into “Managing the Property Asset”.

Where to next – in terms of mastersness – if anywhere?

Two main aspects need to be reviewed:

1. The overall weighting for the group project.  Is this a fair reflection of the work?
2. The reflective practice assignment needs to be reviewed.  Instructions need to be more explicit; and there needs to be greater recognition of cultural differences in what students are willing to reveal.  Where a culture is reserved and prizes privacy, it may be unreasonable to expect students to express their feelings about group work. 

References

Hase, S and Kenyon, C (2000). From Andragogy to Heutagogy. ultiBASE Faculty of Education Language and Community Services, RMIT University.

Contact

Chris Garbett, C.Garbett@leedsmet.ac.uk, School of the Built Environment and Engineering, Leeds Metropolitan University.