Collaboration Tools

Collaboration Strategies

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, technology may provide novel, efficient, and effective means for instructors to monitor and provide feedback on group projects.

Review CELT’s Setting the stage for success in the group work page to get started.

Explore possible uses for collaboration

Major group projects in courses can require students to generate, organize, and collaborate on many or large computer files, especially when projects involve the use of video. CyBox is a cloud-based file storage and sharing service explicitly designed for collaboration. CyBox provides storage capacity and organization issues. It allows students and instructors to attach comments, tags (to facilitate secure file searches), and editable task lists in the file directory.

These features provide secure 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 groups and then to monitor what is or isn’t working. The Box Feed feature summarizes all activity on the site. It facilitates efficient oversight of student projects (To see who acted on a file, what action they took, and when they worked). 

Things to know:

  • G-Suite Docs and CyBox are integrated with ISU’s Canvas. Students can log in to Canvas access items in G-Suite Docs and CyBox without having to log into separate accounts for these tools. CyBox 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 G-Suite tools in several ways, by adding links in Canvas Resources.
  • CyBox is 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 Iowa State 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 (see Box’s Sharing Content and Inviting Collaborators page).
  • CyBox meets the Iowa State University’s standards for security and privacy, including Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA). Review ISU’s FERPA page.

Group decision making is a critical component of teamwork, especially when projects require students to evaluate competing ideas. Teams often pursue sub-optimal 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 preloaded 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.

Build strong group interdependence

One design goal for any online group activity should be to build strong group interdependence. For example, offer bonus points to a group if all members score above a certain grade on an assignment, test, or paper. This can motivate better-prepared students to help and encourage members who may not meet the goal—and the less-prepared students are likely to work harder so they don’t disappoint the group.

Keep groups small

Group members need to interact frequently; a good guideline is three to five members.

Establish peer evaluation

Peer evaluation helps to build team skills because it lets students reflect on their process and outcomes, and provides instructors with continuous feedback. Faculty can survey students not just at the end of a project, but also 25 to 30 percent into the process, when students can learn from the feedback and make adjustments. Ask:

  • Did all members of the group contribute?
  • What could be done next time to make the group function better?
  • What were the most important things I learned?
  • What contributions did I make?

Form diverse groups

Deliberately mixing students—based on achievement level, gender, ethnicity, academic interests, learning styles, or other relevant factors—typically enables students to work constructively with others who bring different strengths and approaches to their learning tasks.

Small group discussions can be useful modes of active learning during lectures, whether groups are preassigned or based merely 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). Students may revisit and study the core aspects of objectives or conversations that may otherwise be ephemeral.
  • Second, they allow instructors to monitor and provide feedback on the progress of groups quickly. This process is far more efficient and effective 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.

Things to know:

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.

Peer evaluations are an essential method of assessment when using group work in a class. The Comprehensive Assessment of Team Member Effectiveness (CATME) is a low-cost, web-based peer evaluation tool (view licensing information). This tool 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 and assess individual student’s contributions and to adjust grades accordingly.

Important note: Peer evaluation should repeatedly occur at critical milestones during the group process, not just at the end of a group project.Learn more from CELT’s Peer Assessment page.

The geographical and temporal logistics of meeting outside of class can be a significant barrier to successful teamwork. Webex, G-Suite Hangouts, or Zoom can engage in synchronous online video chats.

Each allows for text chats and screensharing, providing a platform for student teams to meet remotely and collaborate effectively.

Make it accessible

Most online collaboration tools meet accessibility standards; however, if they do not, instructors should be prepared to offer reasonable accommodations to such students to participate fully in course activities.

Tools and strategies

Reading Activities

Reading Activities Table of Contents Reading activities can be a great way to gauge student understanding of content knowledge, extend

Barkley, E. F., Major, C. H., & Cross, K. P. (2014). Collaborative Learning Techniques: a Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco: Wiley-Blackwell.

Collaboration Strategies, by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at Iowa State University is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0. This work, Collaboration Strategies, is a derivative of Online Collaboration Tools developed by University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (retrieved on May 4, 2020) from and Collaborative Online Learning developed by Rochester Institute of Technology (retrieved on May 4, 2020) from