Facilitating Group Work on Blackboard Next Generation

It has become an axiom in education that students learn best when they are actively involved in the learning process. Active involvement can be facilitated by integrating group activities with other learning strategies.   Davis notes that “regardless of subject matter, students working in small groups tend to learn more of what is taught and retain it longer than when the same content is presented in other instructional formats” (Davis, 1993).

While group collaboration on student projects is a common feature in face-to-face instruction, successful implementation is dependent upon a number of elements.  These include planning each stage of group work, demonstrating the relevance of group work course objectives, creating group tasks that require interdependence, structuring these tasks for an equitable division of labor among group members, dealing with student concerns and reservations about group work, and evaluating group members’ performance (McInnerney, 2007; Davis, 1993). Faculty may also need to instruct students in group work skills such as active listening and conflict resolution.

Creating Groups

Conducting group activities in an online environment can be facilitated with proper preparation and design of learning activities and a set of appropriate collaboration tools.   Blackboard, the learning management system used at NIU, offers a number of useful tools that can enhance group collaboration.  Earlier versions of Blackboard included a ‘group creation’ function. Faculty members were able to create single groups and manually assign students to each of them.  However, Blackboard Next Generation, the most recent upgrade, includes a number of expanded group features. While faculty can still create a single group, they are now able to create multiple groups, known as a “group set.”

In addition, there are now three ways to assign students to groups (see Figure 1):

  1. students can still be assigned manually by the faculty
  2. students can self-enroll, determining for themselves what group to join
  3. students can be randomly assigned to groups (random assignment can be helpful in the context of larger class sizes and creating multiple groups)

A faculty member’s preferred method of assignment may reflect their individual teaching philosophy. For example, a faculty member may assign students to groups based on specific criteria, such as prior achievement or level of academic preparation. On the other hand, students may be permitted to self-enroll in cases where students are more familiar with each others’ preparation, abilities and skills. Finally, faculty members may utilize random assignment to ensure maximum heterogeneity as well as to expedite group creation with larger class sizes.

Figure 1





Figure 1. Methods of Assigning Students to Groups


Group Page (Group Area)

Group members have access to a customizable group page/area, with a collection of collaboration tools to facilitate communication and enhance completion of group activities (see Figure 2).

In addition to group tools available in previous versions of Blackboard  (i.e., chat, virtual classroom, file exchange, email, and discussion board), several new ones have been integrated into Blackboard Next Generation.

  • Group “blogs” allow group members to post their reflections or discuss and analyze group work. Only group members can participate and contribute to their group blogs.
  • A group “wiki” tool allows members to create and contribute to one or more pages of group-related work. Unlike course wikis where all students can read and contribute, group wikis are only accessible by members of a particular group. Group members can create and edit pages, as well as comment on entries.
  • A group “journal” is a self-reflective tool that can be read by faculty and all group members. However, only individual students and faculty can add comments to journal entries.  Students enrolled in groups have ready access to them from the group’s palette below the Course Menu.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Group Page (Group Area)


Group Assignments

Another new group feature is the ability of faculty to create “group” assignments. Faculty have the option to assign the same activity to all groups, or create different assignments for each group. Group members can access each new assignment from within their Group page (see Figure 2), work together using a combination of group collaboration tools to communicate, prepare, develop, edit, post, and exchange group documents. After the group assignment is submitted, faculty can review and enter a grade for the group as a whole (although there is the option for individual grades to be adjusted/overwritten where necessary).

Faculty considering integrating group activities to their Blackboard courses may want to register for a new hands-on workshop to be offered by Faculty Development November 2011:  “Facilitating Group Work on Blackboard Next Generation.” Participants will have the opportunity to create a single group as well as group sets, explore different methods of enrolling students, and create group assignments.

For more information on creating groups in Blackboard Next Generation, as well as a description of group tools, view the Blackboard Groups Quick Guide: http://www.blackboard.niu.edu/blackboard/guides/groups.pdf


Davis, B.G. (1993). Tools for teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Roberts, T. S.,  & McInnerney, J. M. (2007). Seven Problems of Online Group Learning (and Their Solutions). Educational Technology & Society, 10 (4), 257-268.

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