Supporting group research projects with free online communication technologies

Fall 2011 Student Hackathon CodingIn this blog post and an informal, face-to-face lunchtime “brownbag” seminar for faculty members held today on campus, I will present some principles and examples of free online applications that have worked well in my team-intensive professional communication and social research methods courses.

The main purpose of the workshop is to share instructors’ insights and specific experiences with communication technologies for student team research projects, starting with my own. Each technology has had its strengths and weaknesses, and some of these can work together or even be set up to function within or “through” the Blackboard course management interface we use at our university.

The relevance to rhetoric is that teams require appropriate forums for their collaborative everyday communication, and the forums can structure, enable and limit the kinds of informative and persuasive acts that learners and researchers need to engage in during a short-term university course.

Technology needs and opportunities

Fall 2011 Student Hackathon CodingSome team projects may not need any technologies, but others may rely on them or may benefit from them. Nowadays there are many choices facing students (and research teams) regarding communication technologies for research and writing projects. Course management systems like Blackboard 8.0 (currently still in use by our university) are limited and inefficient compared to the technologies freely available online.

If we don’t make the technology choice easier for our student teams, they may fall back on the systems their generation knows best (social media, text, email). A chaotic mix of technologies or the use of technologies that are not meant for teams might make the group project quite inefficient and disorganized, risking the loss of document versions, messages, or delays in communication, which can result in undue stress, team breakdown, and the temptation for some to do more work on behalf of others.  Teams need a communication technology that works for all team members (and the instructor, if necessary) and is efficient and reliable for email/discussion and document sharing.

On the negative side, the use of free online applications outside of the university involves risks, complexity and learning on the part of instructors and students.  On the positive side, when student research teams have used technologies in my own courses, I often hear comments near the end of term like “I can’t imagine our team could have accomplished as much research without these applications” and “without relying on these technologies, teamwork would have been impossible due to our extracurricular schedules” and “I wish I could get my peers to use these applications for my other group projects. They helped us stay organized and work through our challenges.”

Online communication technologies, if well integrated into a course, can enhance the ethics, effectiveness, and efficiency of student teams’ learning and research.  Initially instructors’ preparation and student effort can be experienced as frustrating obstacles to learning rather than part of learning process.  However, they entail significant learning and the pay-off by end of term can be quite positive.

To some degree, in the world in which most students will work, technological literacy and adaptability are basic skills and most disciplines are relying more on online applications to share knowledge.  These should be integrated with postsecondary learning and education in this area shouldn’t be relegated to entertainment industries and corporations.

What research & theory say…

A good general resource for decision making about technology integration in courses is Bates and Poole, 2003, “SECTIONS” framework from chapter four of their book, A framework for selecting and using   technology, summarized and introduced by Cindy Underhill at UBC.

  • Students
  • Ease of Use
  • Costs
  • Teaching & Learning
  • Interactivity
  • Organizational Issues
  • Novelty
  • Speed

Other relevant sources are listed at the end of this post.

Major points

Fall 2010 hackNY Student HackathonBased on my experience and my review of literature related to integrating Web 2.0 into classrooms, these are some of the specific technological communication needs and opportunities of research groups in courses:

Relevance to the course’s topics and goals

  • Certain genres of application are a more logical choice as venues for communication and collaboration depending on the topic and discipline.  If the course relies on textual library sources and qualitative research, perhaps applications like Zotero, relevant to library research, should be chosen, and applications that foster dialogue and commentary such as blogs.
  • On the other hand, If the research is quantitative and depends on database programs, the applications should be compatible with these and/or similar to these, such as LimeSurvey or Google spreadsheets/forms.
  • Pedagogical mechanisms that foster step by step progress and individual accountability should be considered, i.e. an end-of-term self/peer evaluation survey, and deadlines for ungraded drafts or individual contributions.  In some courses I have graded team research assignments 50% for the final document’s quality and 50% for individual contributions to quantity and quality (students supply their team’s author credits). The openness of online collaboration applications ensures instructors have access to the evidence of individual and team work.

Technology’s integration into the course’s structures and teaching methods

  • The technologies need to be easy enough to learn within the time period required by the course.  One cannot assume students will adapt “more easily” to new applications just because they are known as the “net generation.” If they pose a learning challenge, the use of these technologies should be part of the course’s instruction.
  • Do you find these technologies useful as an individual researcher?  Are they conducive to team projects as well?
  • The instructor should be familiar with the technologies in order to present occasional demonstrations in class so that the course content is not divorced from its technological environments.

For relevance and use in research projects, applications must offer the following:

  • Unity in the midst of a diverse communication environment. One or more applications should provide a well-integrated network or unified repository for each group’s email correspondence and online messaging, with easy links to research sources, shared raw data files, draft proposal/report documents, and course materials and file submission areas (if submitting assignments online).
  • The ability for students to organize and manage their own information so that the applications’ content and history could be accessed by teammates at any time.
  • The ability to share versions of collaboratively-authored files without losing track of updates and new versions, and the ability to track and save each person’s contributions.  This fosters accountability in teamwork.
  • Some degree of compatibility between technologies, and ways to manage or reduce problems with incompatibility.

Security, trust and sustainability in a volatile environment

  • The application should handle research data and users’ privacy according to university and course policies.
  • The application should be reputable, well established, and should not be at high risk of disappearing or crashing during the term.
  • There should be backup plans and information backup processes in place in case an essential application goes down.
  • Some research and user testing should be done months before the course begins.

Some Technology Examples

Mobile AppsI’ll touch on some creative uses of the following applications that I’ve mentioned in some previous posts in the blog:

  • Google Docs for discussion within a real-time document, and Google Sites as a team intranet or private website with calendar, lists, files, and messages
  • Zoho Projects: for well organized integrated project management of more complex term-long projects, especially if a project involves external client collaboration and/or instructor supervision
  • WordPress blogs (like those hosted on,, for sharing and discussing information
  • for file sharing in collaborative teams, class-wide assignment submission, and a library of handouts and links.

Examples in context

Service-learning research projects.  Eight team projects were conducted by students in a 45-student 2nd year social research methods course.  A) Association for the Rehabilitation of the Brain Injured (2 teams), B) a local Business Revitalization Zone organization (3 teams), C) the university’s Common Reading Program committee (3 teams). Each set of teams working for a single community partner shared survey data collected via LimeSurvey, research progress tracked through Google Spreadsheets, and final data sets shared through Zoho Projects.  Data was shared among teams and community partners according to UofC research ethics certification and participants’ consent.

Website content development projects.  Examples: In a 30-student course, sets of student collected data from interviews, organizations’ past websites and print documents, and developed videos and photographs with privacy and copyright permissions. Students used Google Sites and Documents OR Zoho Projects for their research process collaboration during the term and used WordPress blogs to comment on each other’s drafts within the environment where they were finalized.

Technology comparisons

  • 2010 Fall: a comparison of the features of Blackboard, free Google applications, and Zoho applications for a 210-student course delivered in an online environment: TechnologyOptions.xlsx


  • Intensive student engagement and cooperation.
  • More accomplished than could be done individually.
  • Results of a survey conducted by the U of C’s CCEL office in the summer after the course was over:


Bates, A. W. & Poole, G. (2003). Chapter Four: A framework for selecting and using   technology. In Effective Teaching in Higher Education: Foundations for Success. New York: Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated.

Bryant, L. (2007). Emerging trends in social software for education. Emerging Technologies for Learning (2nd ed., Vol. 2, pp. 9-18). Becta.

Clark, D. R. (2004), Instructional System Design Concept Map. Retrieved January 25, 2010 from

Kennedy, G., Dalgarno, B., Gray, K., Judd, T., Waycott, J., Bennett, S., et al. (2007). The net generation are not big users of Web 2.0 technologies: Preliminary findings. In ICT: Providing choices for learners and learning. Proceedings ascilite Singapore 2007 (pp. 517-525). Available from

Kennedy, G., Judd, T., Churchward, A., Gray, K. & Krause, K-L. (2008). First year students’ experiences with technology: Are they really digital natives? Australiasian Journal of Educational Technology, 24(1), 108-122.

Kennedy, G., Dalgarno, B., Bennett, S., Gray, K., Waycott, J., Judd, T., Bishop, A., Maton, K., Krause, K-L., & Chang, R. (2009). Educating the Net Generation: A Handbook of Findings for Practice and Policy.  Published by the University of Melbourne and the Australian Learning and Teaching Council.  Retrieved from

McLaughlin, C., & Lee, M. J. W. (2008). Future Learning Landscapes: Transforming Pedagogy through Social Software. Innovate, 4(5). Retrieved from

Waycott, J., Bennett, S., Kennedy, G., Dalgarno, B., Gray, K. (2009). Digital divides? Student and staff perceptions of information and communication technologies. Computers and Education, 54(2010), 1202-1211.

Williams, J. & Chinn, S. J. (2009). Using web 2.0 to support the active learning experience. Journal of Information Systems Education, 20(2), 165-174.


One thought on “Supporting group research projects with free online communication technologies

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