Group work – experiences and advice by Helen Kiely and Lorna Dawson

When you sign up for the MLIS, whatever university you’re taking it with, get set to engage in group work. Be warned, you may be used to working as part of a team in work, but doing it on the course can be a whole different ball game. Hats off to Helen who has managed doing group work without having a single face to face meeting! She shares her experiences of this here. We’ve also put together our top tips to help smooth your ride in future.

Long-distance (group) relationships – Helen

It’s eleven o’clock at night and I am sitting in bed with my laptop balanced precariously on my knees. On my screen, a PowerPoint document is undergoing rapid changes. Slide 3’s pictures are moving around, citations are being added to Slide 7, typos are being removed on slide 12 all at the same time. Through my headphones I can hear my fellow students chatting away about the changes we still need to make and at the bottom of the webpage a chat browser adds more comments to the conversation. One person says she will have to go soon, it is nearly teatime in Hong Kong, while the rest of us will soon be heading to our beds before it is time to get up for work the next morning.

I never expected distance-learning group work would look like this!

My first term involved a lot of group work- far more than I would have expected from previous experience. I completed my MA in Social and Cultural Theory a few years ago now and it is fascinating to see how far group work –via-distance has come since then.

Before

  • Message boards
  • Email
  • Conference calls

Now

  • Message boards
  • Email
  • Skype
  • Adobe Connect Rooms
  • Google shared docs
  • Social media

Of course, like any group work, it wasn’t all plain sailing just because we had new ways to communicate! The majority of my group tended to prefer meeting together in ‘live’ sessions, which wasn’t always easy to organise with people living in different time zones! Sometimes, too, we often benefitted more from stepping away and having time to think about things before sharing them with the group. However it did allow a lot more freedom of conversation, and less room for misunderstanding, which as anyone who has ever posted on facebook or a messageboard will know, is always a danger in text-only communication.  It was great for those weeks when we needed to all work on the same document and discuss it at the same time in our shared google docs, or to chat ‘live’ after a lecture about the key themes that had been covered.

How many of these new techniques, I think, could we use in our service? Could we use adobe-style shared screens to train at a distance? Could we introduce more collaborative ways of working with shared ‘live’ documents in meetings? We might already use some of these methods already, but an additional benefit about using these on my course means they give me new ideas about what is possible, and how we might implement them in working life too.

Top tips for group work – Helen and Lorna

  1. Treat it like a meeting

When we started first term, we were given the advice that most group work is actually done outside of the group meeting. The meeting itself is a time to touch base, give progress updates and agree next steps. This works really well. In meetings, rather than sitting altogether ignoring each other as we got on with work, we solved problems, adjusted deadlines, shared new findings. I also think it worked well because everyone had almost a business mindset where we were all really focused, the big topics got discussed and resolved, and things kept moving forward. It’s pretty satisfying.

  1. Keep things moving

It’s really easy for group discussion to tail off into general chit chat which is nice but when you have a looming deadline, not that helpful. For me, having a sense of pace keeps not only work but also motivation flowing and there are a few ways to do this. One is having an agenda for each meeting. Having a set number of topics to get through gives a tiny bit of pressure to make decisions there and then rather than labouring points. Establishing project milestones also helps. In first term, we did this by mapping all the project steps from start to finish on a GANTT chart. When one target was reached we could have that “Yay!” moment, but also immediately knew what to move onto.

  1. Knowledge share

On an MA, everyone in your group will be at a different place in terms of library experience. Some people will have been working in libraries for years, some may not have worked in one at all. If you’re working in a group together, it’s really important to try to get everyone on the same page. Be prepared to teach people stuff that you’ve known for ages and they’ve never heard about and to learn new things from them in return. In groupwork, it’s not just the course tutor you learn things form, it’s each other too.

  1. Do those team roles questionnaires

I know they seem like a bit of a cliché but are really useful. Before starting a second piece of groupwork, our teams had to do a Belbin team roles questionnaire and we discussed what roles we came out with. It highlighted a key role that we were missing, which gave us all the opportunity to work outside of our comfort zones and try out that role. Definitely try out different roles. I’m usually an ideas person, but this time I’m doing more organising/facilitating. Working from a different perspective has helped me understand group dynamics a lot more and made me a more effective team player.

  1. Make sure everyone feels valued

For me, one of the keys to groupwork is sharing ideas but not everyone feels confident sharing ideas. It might be low self-esteem, they might be afraid of being shot down or someone might just be calling the shots and not asking for anyone else’s suggestions. I make it a priority that everyone feels confident speaking their mind. There are probably tons of ways to do this. Personally, I make sure I write everyone’s ideas and thoughts down so people know their ideas are being taken into consideration. Another thing is making sure everyone has an action point to take away at the end of the meeting. The best way is to throw out an open question like “So what do we need to do for next week?” and people chip in, they can take ownership of their next steps, and they know they are contributing and feel valued.

  1. Make sure everyone understands their roles and the direction of travel

This one seems obvious but in my first group project, after everyone had agreed and (I thought) been clear on what tasks we were all going to do before the next meeting, by the next morning it became apparent not everyone felt that way. After that, my group always made an effort at the end of the meeting to each confirm specifically what they were each going to do before the next week. This helped to nip any insecurities or uncertainties in the bud early!

  1. Agree on design early – and in writing!

Close to the deadline for one of our projects I could feel panic setting in amongst some of the members more than others which did lead to a frustratingly long group meeting, including a fifteen minute debate among members about font size! Learning from that, the next time around we encouraged minor formatting points to be made clear early to prevent any last-minute disagreements over the design of the final piece – hopefully avoiding further incidents around whether calibri should be size 10 or 11!

  1. Enjoy the experience!

At the end of the day, we are all working together with a common goal and are exploring new things. People come from so many different backgrounds and have different strengths, it’s important to reflect around the value we all get from working with people with different viewpoints than our own, and learning from each other. There’s nothing worse than if a group project becomes a chore, rather than something that can be interesting in its own right.

Lorna Dawson and Helen Kiely

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