Zoom calls and Google Docs replace face to face communication for group projects to keep students safe

Students adapt to new group project formats due to COVID-19. Photo by Josa Kerns. 

KATIE DEAN | STAFF REPORTER | kldean@butler.edu

Navigating a mixture of in-person, hybrid, and online courses in a pandemic is challenging in itself. Add in a group project to the mix and a lot more flexibility and communication will be required. Group projects are often an essential part of the classroom learning experience, and just as students have acclimated to virtual classes, they have also found ways to adapt to virtual group projects. 

Ellie Flowers, a junior music industry studies major, has firsthand experience completing group projects in these unusual times. In her “Principles of Strategic Communication” class, she and three other peers created a marketing plan for a local Indianapolis organization. Her team chose to do their project on Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Flowers said her group would meet over Zoom about once a week instead of meeting in person to ensure safety and accommodate remote students. Despite the physical distance, the team went about completing the project in a typical teamwork style: divide and conquer. 

“One person in our group is really strong at formatting and doing finishing touches and paying attention to details,” Flowers said. “I’m someone who’s really bad with numbers but I’m great with words, so I wrote out a couple of little blurbs. So it’s playing to each other’s strengths.”

Technological problems are, unfortunately, an inevitable part of working together remotely. Flowers found the technology to be the most challenging aspect of her group project experience.

“I live in AV, and for whatever reason, the apartment that I’m in gets awful WiFi, so we’ve definitely had some annoying moments where we’ve been trying to discuss something or figure something out and one of us will cut out or one of us will get kicked off the Zoom,” Flowers said. “It just takes a little bit more effort to get around.”

These technological challenges are ones that Jenna Hadley, a junior strategic communication major, also experienced. She completed a month-long project for her “Research Methods for Strategic Communication” class where her team of three produced a report based on a focus group.

Hadley’s group used Google Docs to keep everyone’s contributions in one place. This way, group members could see each other’s ideas without needing to be in person. Similar to Flowers, Hadley and her team would frequently meet on Zoom. While there were technological challenges along the way, Hadley believed the project still turned out well and credits good communication for the group’s success.

“Honestly, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” Hadley said, “I was a little worried about my group project because of the fact that it was mostly on Zoom, but we communicated well enough to where we were able to find times for us to meet, and even if technical difficulties occurred we found a way to make it work.”

With students usually meeting in person for group projects outside of class, consistent communication is necessarily to bridge the gap that virtual projects can create. Caroline Davis, a junior elementary education major, attests to the need for communication and collaboration as an essential part of virtual group projects. For her “Teaching Mathematics-Early Childhood” class, her group wrote a collective paper in response to an assigned reading. 

The five members met for an initial Zoom call to divide up the work and then communicated mostly via text for the remainder of their project. Davis said the biggest takeaway from this new style of working came down to having good collaboration.

“I think that even if you are working on something separately, it needs to be collaborative,” Davis said. “It is okay to break things up if you need to, but to make sure that you’re still working on a group and making sure that the final product is cohesive. So collaborating throughout the process instead of just leaving it up to the individual.”

For those whose projects also require an accompanying presentation, the Speaker’s Lab is a resource for students to practice their speaking skills. With most projects and presentations occurring via Zoom, it might feel unnatural to talk into a computer rather than to a classroom full of students.

Tamryn Gromley, a junior marketing major, works at The Speaker’s Lab and helps students prepare for their speeches. Gromley recommends students make their presentations interactive, whether that be including visuals or transitions, to bridge the disconnect that Zoom can often bring and to keep students engaged. 

Gromley said students should also try to memorize their speeches. She said this can help the speaker feel more confident and enthusiastic about their material.

“Don’t always rely on scripts, because if I can tell as a tutor, there’s stuff professors can definitely tell,” Gromley said, “That’s one of the biggest tips; honestly, have fun with it if you are over Zoom. I know it’s not the most exciting to stare at the screen for most of your classes, but when you’re doing a presentation, in a way you have control of the room, and so if you make it interesting and fun for yourself giving it, the other people will think the same, or at least be more engaged.”

Gromley gave another tip that may not cross students’ minds: don’t sit down in your chair — stand up. Although Zoom is nothing compared to actually presenting in the classroom, this provides a somewhat similar feeling to delivering in person. 

Students can also take their Zoom presentation a step further, Gromley said, by moving their personal screen image right below the camera. Eye contact is important when presenting, but looking into a camera for minutes on end does not empower the speaker to do his or her best. Though it may not feel like the student is in Jordan Hall, these tips will hopefully tide students over until they are back in the classroom.

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