Online Collaboration Tools

Brief Description:

Group work can be a powerful tool to enhance students’ mastery of course content, motivation, and persistence in problem solving (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith 1998; Deslauriers, Schelew, & Wieman, 2011; Smith et al., 2009; Crouch & Mazur, 2001). Instructional technologies can enhance the ability of student teams to collaborate effectively, increasing access and efficiency by reducing spatial and temporal barriers to teamwork. Similarly, IT can provide novel, efficient, and effective means for instructors to monitor and provide feedback on group projects. Online collaboration tools provide a variety of means to enhance group work.

Possible Instructional Uses:

Major group projects in courses can require students to generate, organize and collaborate on many and/or large computer files, especially when projects involve the use of video. M+Box is a cloud-based file storage and sharing service explicitly designed for collaboration. In addition to solving storage capacity and organization issues, allows students and instructors to attach comments, tags (to facilitate easy file searches), and editable task lists in the file directory. These features provide easy mechanisms for students to manage and coordinate workflow within teams. Instructors can also use task lists and commenting features to provide feedback or directions to teams and then to monitor what has been implemented or not. can also generate a single e-mail digest per day to the instructor (site owner), summarizing all activity on the site and facilitating efficient oversight of student projects. U-M example: Melissa Gross, Kinesiology.
Group decision making is a critical component of teamwork, especially when projects require students to evaluate competing ideas. Teams often pursue suboptimal approaches to projects due to poor group process. To enable more equitable and conceptually sound decision-making, using Google Docs, instructors can shift decision making from face-to-face discussions to synchronous, text-based online discussions, during which team members are geographically dispersed. Students can simultaneously access project materials pre-loaded into Google Docs and negotiate decisions at preordained times using the commenting and chat features. Through the Google Docs for each student team, instructors can monitor group dynamics remotely, respond to misconceptions, and intervene constructively in ways that are not logistically possible when the teams met face-to-face. U-M Example: Robin Fowler, Engineering.
Small group discussions can be effective modes of active learning during lectures, whether groups are pre-assigned or based simply on where they happen to sit.  Tools like Google Docs and Drawings can enhance small group discussions in several ways. First, they record and archive the artifacts of learning activities (e.g., brainstorming activities, discussion of readings, or concept mapping activities), so that students may revisit and study the core aspects of activities or discussions that may otherwise be ephemeral. Second, they allow instructors to easily monitor and provide feedback on the progress of groups, far more efficiently and effectively than is possible when circulating throughout a classroom and interrupting group conversations.  Consequently, instructors can be better prepared to effectively and efficiently conduct a debrief of group discussions.  The products of individual groups can also be projected and discussed as part of the debrief.  Some instructors provide feedback to students on group products after class, within the Google Docs or Drawings themselves, especially if the group continues to work on the task after class.  U-M Examples: Orie Shafer, Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, Mika LaVaque-Manty, Political Science, & Laurie Hartman, Nursing.
Peer evaluations are an important method of assessment when using groupwork in a class. The Comprehensive Assessment of Team Member Effectiveness (CATME) is a free, web-based peer evaluation tool that allows instructors to monitor team dynamics and intervene to solve problems as needed.  Peer evaluation can be useful both to provide formative feedback to improve group dynamics throughout a project as well as to assess individual student’s contributions and to adjust grades accordingly. Peer evaluation should occur repeatedly at key milestones during group process, not just at the end of a group project. For more info, see CRLT Occasional Paper 29.
The geographical and temporal logistics of meeting outside of class can be a significant barrier to successful teamwork. Google+ Hangouts is a video conferencing feature within Google+ (a social networking application similar to Facebook), through which up to ten people can engage in synchronous online video chats. Google+ Hangouts also allow for text chats and screensharing, providing a platform for student teams to meet remotely and collaborate effectively.

Tips for Using Online Collaboration Tools

For general recommendations on how to teach effectively and inclusively with online collaboration tools, please see CRLT Occasional Paper 31.  For tips on using specific tools, please see below.

  1. Sharing files via online collaboration tools:
    • Sharing files with students can be tedious and time consuming if one has to manually manage who has access to the files. At U-M, instructors can share Google Docs and Drawings with class rosters easily by creating a course group in MCommunity.
    • Google Docs and U-M Box are integrated with U-M’s course management system, CTools. Students can log in to Canvas access items in Google Docs or U-M Box without having to log into separate accounts for these tools. U-M Box can be turned on as one of the basic tools within a Canvas site (it will show up as a link in the list of tools in the left navigation bar). Instructors link to Google Docs, Drawings or Collections/Folders in several ways, by adding links in Canvas Resources or by using the Web Content Tool. 
    • By default, files or folders created in Google Docs and U-M Box are private and accessible only by the creator.  Instructors must adjust privacy settings to grant student access, including whether students can edit or simply view files. Instructors should consider privacy settings carefully (e.g., accessible only to students in the class vs. to anyone at U-M with the link vs. anyone with the link) and beware that it is easy to make an error when adjusting privacy settings and editing privileges.
  2. Setting up Google Docs/Drawings for small group discussions
    • When many people edit a document simultaneously, it can be overwhelming, both to the users and the technology.  To prevent overwhelming users, create place holders in the document for individuals or groups to write (headings or page breaks) or create multiple documents (i.e., each group has it’s own document or five groups maximum share a document). To avoid performance issues, it’s best to have fewer than 20 individuals viewing and editing a document.  if you are using one document for all groups in a large class, you may want to nominate one scribe for each group. 
  3. Setting up Google+ Hangouts
    • Orienting students to Hangouts can be difficult.  Conducting a test run to make sure students can join a Hangout successfully with functional video and audio is key. To maximize usability, teammates should each have access to web cams, audio headsets with microphones (to prevent audio feedback), and a high-speed internet connection with sufficient bandwidth. Students can join a hangout in multiple ways.  One can initiate a hangout in the “stream” in the social networking interface of Google+ or create a link to a Hangout when one creates an event in a Google Calendar event. The latter is far easier for students and instructors to manage: students simply click on the link associated with a Calendar event to join the hangout. 
  4. Keep Accessibility in Mind
    • Many online collaboration tools are not readily accessible to students with disabilities, particularly to those students visual or physical impairments.  Instructors should be prepared to offer reasonable accommodations to such students so that they may participate fully in course activities. For assistance, contact CRLT, Services for Students with Disabilities, and/or the Knox Center for Adaptive Technology.  Additional information specific to the U-M Google apps can be found here.

These tools are used for very different purposes. Possible tools for each of the instructional uses described on this page are listed below.

Instructional Use Possible Tool(s)
Managing, sharing and collaborating on large files associated with group projects M+Box, a.k.a.
Improving group process and decision making Google Docs/Drive 
Enhancing small group discussions during lectures Google Drive (particularly Docs & Drawings)
Team-building through peer evaluation CATME
Facilitating synchronous online group interactions outside of class Google+ Hangouts


There is a searchable database of faculty examples provided at