Facilitating Real-time, Online Group Projects

While many things can be taught asynchronously, some things seem to require a live element. Negotiation is one of those things, as body language, tone, and reaction to the other person all play a critical role in determining the outcome of a negotiation. That means that my fellow instructors and I needed to find a way of integrating a live negotiation simulation, but at a distance, into our online negotiation course.

We first set up a negotiation scenario and then split the class into two teams. Those in Team A were given the role of playing one side of the scenario, while those in Team B were given the other role of playing the other side. Students first had to identify their best offer, their best alternative offer, the point at which they would walk away from the negotiation, and their opening and closing statements. They then submitted this information to the instructor for feedback. Students also estimated the other party’s best offer, best alternative offer, the point at which they would walk away from the negotiation, and their opening and closing statements to prepare themselves for the live event.

Once the preparation was done, students were paired with a member of the opposite team. Students then conducted their negotiations via Skype, although a Google Hangout on Air would have worked as well. That negotiation was recorded, and each student was asked to write and submit a reflection of his or her negotiation experience and state whether Partner A or Partner B won the negotiation.

This exercise outlines the four fundamental steps to developing a real-time group events online.


The foundation of efficient, effective, and meaningful group work begins with a clear frame and directions for the project. Besides the usual learning objectives, deliverables, and grading information, students need technical information on how to use the systems involved in the work. It is easy to assume that all students will master any new technology quickly because they are “digital natives,” but an understanding of gaming and texting is different from an understanding of Skype, so students need step-by-step directions on how to set up Skype and record the events. Because the assignment is new for them, it is also helpful to provide recordings of past events to provide a model of what was expected.  Doing this will keep the exercise from going badly off course and will vastly improve the outcome.

Instructor Involvement

Instructor involvement in online group work is important, especially for initial assignments. For one, the instructor can mediate student issues and make final decisions. Two, effective group work requires completion of all assignment steps, and without instructor involvement, a group could remain stuck on an early step like scheduling to meet.  Don’t leave it to students to schedule the live sessions, as a few students invariably have a hard time meeting up when left to their own devices. Instructors should facilitate the scheduling by:

  • Creating a scheduling template using a shared calendar or scheduling system and defined meeting times. Minimizing the time options helps the students come to agreement on scheduling.
  • Requiring students to verify with their instructor and one another by email that they plan to meet at the designated times.
  • Attending the live sessions whenever possible.  This way, the instructor can ensure that both parties are following directions in their work and can intervene if something goes seriously wrong.


Students will need practice on new technologies before the actual event. It is remarkable how often problems arise with sound or visuals in live online sessions due to wrong computer settings.  Students should be required to test out the technologies ahead of time in practice sessions to work out any bugs.

For example, in the online negotiations course, the instructor could hold weekly meetings with each group prior to the negotiation simulation. The purpose of the meetings would be to discuss course information and to give the students an opportunity to practice using the technology prior to the graded negotiation.


Finally, online group work should allow for group and individual reflection. For instance, students involved in a live event recorded in Google Hangouts on Air can easily view the recording afterwards on a private YouTube channel and make comments about their own and others’ performances. Students in the negotiation simulation can see how they appear to the other person and can catch body language issues, such as worry, that might undermine their position. They also can see where they could have responded differently to improve their position. Plus, the instructor can annotate the videos with his or her own comments; identify places where the student’s words, tone, or body language hurt or helped their position; and leave them with a permanent reference to go back to later to prepare for future projects.

While live group projects take time to set up and run, they are a valuable addition to any online course.

Dr. Jillian R. Yarbrough is an instructor of human resource development at Texas Tech University.

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