For many psychology students, group research projects require jostling of busy schedules, late night meetings in the library or student union and, inevitably, takeout food.

But how do you run a group project where half of the team is based hundreds of miles away?

That's the challenge faced by undergraduate psychology students at Clarion University and West Chester University--schools in opposite corners of Pennsylvania--who are participating in the Internet-based Collaborative Learning and Research Project (CLRP), a collaborative venture among Clarion, West Chester and Casper College in Wyoming.

The goal of the project is to prepare students for graduate school coursework and future careers that will likely demand effective Internet communication and collaboration skills, says Thomas Treadwell, EdD, who launched the project in 1995.

For the project, psychology students from the two Pennsylvania schools are divided into three research teams of 8 to 10 students each--half of each team is from Clarion and half is from West Chester. Using the Internet as their main form of communication, each team must develop and submit a joint research proposal on a topic that taps into the material covered in their courses, which are different for each school.

And the project's communication gets even more complex, spreading out to two other states. To keep students' online communication on track, each team is assigned a writing coach--an undergraduate English student from Casper College in Wyoming who helps the team craft the proposal and facilitates the online communication. And if students run into trouble, they can tap the expertise of technology specialist Paula Davidson of the Georgia Tech Research Institute, another project participant, for technical guidance when they need it.

The future is now

While traditional group projects hone students' skills, Treadwell wanted to take the lessons of group work one step further and help students build effective Internet communication and collaboration skills.

"These students are preparing for the future," says Treadwell, a professor of psychology at West Chester. "There is no doubt in my mind that this is the direction higher education is headed."

The teams develop their research proposals through the CLRP Web site--part of the West Chester University Web site--which contains a "Web board" for each research team. On these boards, students delegate project tasks, ask questions, report on progress and review each other's work by posting regular messages for other team members. The Casper College student writing coaches, along with their advisor, Bob Mittan, PhD, monitor the dialogue.

"They challenge students, help clarify information and even outline steps that the two groups in each team should follow," says Treadwell. "They keep the communication flowing among each team."

Faculty advisors Treadwell and Donna Ashcraft, PhD, the Clarion faculty participant, also regularly visit the three Web boards to answer questions and monitor team progress.

For major project planning, delegating and brainstorming, teams schedule online chat meetings, which take place in a chat room built into the learning project Web site called the "Collaboratorium."

But it's more work

While the project is teaching students new skills, there are disadvantages to Internet-based collaboration, admits Ashcraft, an associate professor of psychology at Clarion.

"The students are probably spending more time doing the Internet-based project than with traditional group work," says Ashcraft. And, she and Treadwell have found, students are overwhelmed at first about working with students they don't know.

"Faculty also put in more time," says Ashcraft. "It takes time to visit the Web boards, plus we collaborate on all the grades."

But the grading puts these students at an advantage over students doing traditional group projects. The professors are able to evaluate students' work each step of the way by monitoring the Web boards, allowing them to grade students on their individual efforts, not just the final project.

The Internet-based approach also offers students a richer educational experience, says Treadwell. Since students are enrolled in different courses--psychology of women at Clarion and group dynamics at West Chester this semester--they pull ideas from both courses to create their project. In addition, they sharpen their writing skills along the way.

"The project was one of the best experiences I have had in college," says Jacqueline Sherman, a senior undergraduate student at Clarion University who participated in the project last semester. "The project was useful in learning how to work with others and enhancing my problem-solving skills--I will be able to use what I learned from this project in all areas of my life."

And this semester offers a new twist for students--they will "meet" their teammates at a videoconferencing potluck dinner. At the dinner, students will use videoconferencing technology that Treadwell secured with a grant from Community of Agile Partners in Education, as well as SMARTBoard™ Interactive Electronic Whiteboards--oversized touch-sensitive computer screens--that allow students to share online applications with their remote team members.

Research results

Treadwell and Ashcraft conducted a research project of their own to find out whether collaboration between students is working--with positive results. In a study they hope to publish soon, Treadwell and Ashcraft measured students' Internet collaboration and found that students worked together effectively and were successfully incorporating the course material into their projects.

Treadwell and Ashcraft will discuss the Collaborative Learning and Research Project at APA's 2000 Annual Convention in Washington, D.C. Their presentation will be part of an interactive program sponsored by The Board of Educational Affairs, and Div. 6 (Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative) and Div. 21 (Applied Experimental and Engineering).

Further Reading

For more information about the project, visit its Web site at albie.wcupa.edu/ttreadwell/index.html.