May/June 2001 // Case Studies
Combining Technology and Group Learning
by Carolyn Kapinus
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Carolyn Kapinus "Combining Technology and Group Learning" The Technology Source, May/June 2001. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

In my Sociology of Women course, a basic introduction to the analysis of women's roles in contemporary society, I encourage students to engage in cooperative learning and to use computer technology by requiring a group Web page project. Groups of four to five students research a topic related to the course and present their findings on a Web page that is then linked to the course site. Each group's project has three parts:

  • An overview of the issues related to a particular topic (this is similar to a regular term paper)
  • Related links, with descriptions of the linked sites and their sponsors
  • An annotated list of books and articles for further reading

This assignment has three learning objectives. First, it encourages course-related research and fosters "information literacy"—identifying a research topic, gathering and evaluating information, and synthesizing data into a useful form (Breivik & Jones, 1993; Work Group on Information Competence, 1995). Second, it requires students to develop computer technology skills by presenting their results in a user-friendly Web-based form. Third, the project provides an opportunity for cooperative learning and helps students learn to work well in groups.

To get students started, I provide a list of potential topics and ask students to rank them. I then place students into groups accordingly. Each member of a group has several responsibilities: researching a particular sub-topic and writing that part of the overview on it, contributing a Web link and a reference for future reading, and volunteering for a task such as compiling a progress report or writing transitions among various parts of the overview. Each group specifies its own division of labor at the start of the project to me.

This assignment presents several challenges. The instructor must consider how to overcome student resistance to computer technology, foster student skills in critically evaluating Web resources, and deal with the issues involved with grading collaborative projects.

Overcoming Resistance to Technology through Group Work

Conventional wisdom has it that students universally embrace computer technology. I have found that this is not always the case. When asked the question, "How comfortable do you feel using the Internet?," one of my students responded, "I hate computers. I end up messing things up and then I feel dumb." While some students are proficient with computers and the Internet, others have little experience and may be uninterested in computer-based assignments (Pychyl, Clark, & Abarbanel, 1999). In addition, students who do not own a computer may have difficulty accessing computer labs during peak times (Althaus, 1997). Placing students in groups alleviates some of the difficulties associated with varying levels of computing experience and access, as long as instructors create these groups with care. A group composed entirely of students with little computer experience and access can be problematic. My placement of students into project groups is partly based on their responses to a questionnaire about access to computers, familiarity with Web browsing, and experience in creating Web sites.

Most students in my course have never created a Web page for a class and are apprehensive. I have found that providing a model of the project and clear instructions on its technical aspects relieves a great deal of apprehension, so I distribute detailed handouts on creating Web pages and include on the course Web site a template that illustrates how the project should look. Other instructors may consider Web-conferencing software such as e-Room and FORUM. Since ensuring technical competency may reduce the time instructors have to teach course content, instructors may instead want to use computer workshops outside of class.

After completing their projects, students upload them to the Web, and I create links to them from the course Web page. Students can then see and evaluate other groups' projects.

Fostering Critical Evaluation of Web Resources

A second issue with this type of project is that students often are not critical consumers of information. The ease of producing Web pages has led to an explosion of Internet resources, and students often do not know how to choose a legitimate Web source (Hammett, 1999). They must learn this skill, and this project creates the perfect opportunity to teach it. Following Hammett?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s suggestion (1999), I provide my students with a handout that lists questions to help them evaluate each Web site:

  • Authority. Can you clearly identify the author of the page and the author's credentials?
  • Accuracy. Is the page part of a peer-reviewed publication? Can information be verified through references or a bibliography?
  • Timeliness. Can you determine when the site was published? Does the sponsor keep the information current?
  • Objectivity. Does the site express a particular bias or perspective? If so, does the site clearly acknowledge its viewpoint?

I discuss the handout during class and instruct students to reconsider using a Web source if they answer no to any of these questions. Another way to address this issue is to give each group examples of Web resources and have the groups explain to the class how they can discern whether the resources are legitimate.

Some students are more adept at Internet searches than others, so instructors may need explain how to conduct an effective search. (To save class time, instructors may provide a handout on Internet searches.) Another possibility is for students to work in pairs on their searches. A third option, suggested by an anonymous reviewer of this paper, is to have students use a computer-based tutorial on search engines.

Dealing with Problems in Grading Collaborative Projects

As one of my students noted in her evaluation of the project, "In every group there is always one person who doesn't want to participate but wants to receive the same grade as the group." Enerson et al (1997) suggest making multiple assessments of group members' work throughout the project. These assessments reinforce personal accountability and provide more information for calculating grades. I require students to complete short assessments during the project to inform me of difficulties with the project or other group members. Students also periodically turn in parts of their project so that I can check their work and make sure they choose appropriate resources as they research their topic. Periodic assessment of group work reduces (although it may not eliminate) the problem of "free riders," since final grades are based on my evaluation of individuals' parts of the project and student evaluations of group members' contributions.

Conclusion: Benefits of the Project

The benefits of this project outweigh its potential problems when instructors pay particular attention to crafting it. Synthesizing information and making it publicly available on the Internet provides an opportunity for students to practice writing for a general audience. As one student noted, "I think the most enjoyable part of this project is seeing our work put on the Internet." Instructors can adapt this project to a variety of courses or change the assignment to an individual project.

The projects are enjoyable to read and allow students to explore in more depth topics related to the course. Several students noted that the structured format provided a model for effective group work. Furthermore, using technology in a collaborative setting helps students overcome their computer skills weaknesses. The proof of this project's value is found in student evaluations: 32 out of 36 students recommended keeping the group Web project as part of the course.


Althaus, S. (1997). Computer-mediated communication in the university classroom: An experiment with on-line discussions. Communication Education, 46, 158-174.

Breivik, P. S., & Jones, D. L. (1993). Information literacy: Liberal education for the information age. Liberal Education, 79, 24-29.

Enerson, D. M., Johnson, R. N., Milner, S., & Plank, K. M. (1997). The Penn State teacher II. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching.

Hammett, P. (1999). Teaching tools for evaluating World Wide Web resources. Teaching Sociology, 27, 31-37.

Pychyl, T. A., Clark, D., & Abarbanel, T. (1999). Computer-mediated group projects: Facilitating collaborative learning with the World Wide Web. Teaching of Psychology, 26, 138-141.

Work Group on Information Competence. (1995). Information competence in the CSU: A report. CLRIT Task 6.1. Long Beach, CA: California State University.

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