The hit sitcom "Community," which follows the antics and dysfunctional dynamics of a study group at Greendale Community College, is heavy on hijinks--Clint Eastwood-Stormtrooper-inspired paintball wars, "Pulp Fiction"-themed parties, drinking during the anthropology 101 final exam--and light on the actual academics. But despite the hilarious off-syllabus send-ups and parodies, the study group does benefit from learning together, even if most of the lessons are of the, "I love you even though you annoy me" kind rather than the "ace the exam" kind. In short, it's always best to have a support group when you're tackling a challenge, and that's especially the case if you're studying for summer semester while most of your friends are chilling and grilling.
Fortunately, with the right online technology, you can create your own study group faster than Abed can make an obscure pop culture reference. And by doing it online, you can keep the commutes to campus to a minimum. If you're a distance learner, forming an online study group, of course, is as natural as Dean Craig Pelton wearing a sequined Uncle Sam costume replete with hot pants, red go-go boots and top hat for the student government election.
Here are some tips for setting up an online study group, followed by a list of online conferencing services and other tools that you and your group can use to communicate and collaborate from outside the classroom. (Software and service listed are free unless otherwise specified.)
Keep it small
Whether it's in the classroom or in the corporate world, the bigger a group gets, the harder it becomes to manage and the less effective it tends to be. Including too many people in your group can make it difficult for everyone to contribute equally, and it may also cause scheduling conflicts and other problems. As a general rule, limiting the number of participants--perhaps to around a half-dozen or so--will make it easier for people to work together and get more out of the group.
Keep it short
When you have a ton of material to deal with and/or a looming deadline, such as a test or an impending project due, it may seem like a good idea to try and cover a lot of ground quickly with very lengthy sessions. But making sessions too long--say, anything more than 45-60 minutes--can increase the likelihood of disruptive latecomers, early departures, and no-shows. If possible, you may want to opt for shorter, but more frequent sessions.
Keep it focused
Just as a teacher supervises what goes on in the classroom, an online study group will benefit greatly from having a leader or moderator to manage sessions and keep everyone's attention focused on the subject at hand. This person is a logical choice to set the group's agenda and ensure the discussion keeps tangents to a minimum (that is, unless the group happens to be studying geometry).
Keep it quiet
Although online study groups give you the option to connect from just about anywhere, it doesn't mean that someplace like a noisy, crowded café is a good study venue. For the benefit of everyone in the group, try to log in from somewhere that's relatively quiet and conducive to learning, such as a bedroom or home office. For that matter, when in an online study session, resist the urge to check e-mail or engage in similar distracting activities.
This free downloadable program (albeit for Windows PCs only) lets up to 15 people connect together to view each other's PC screens, share access to software, and with permission, take control of each other's computers. SharedView also allows up to 25 files to be distributed to the group and permits collaborative editing of Microsoft Word documents.
With Mikogo's software (available for Windows or Mac; only the person who sets up a meeting needs to download it) up to 10 people can meet to share files, a whiteboard, or access to each other's computer screens. Of note,Mikogo also has the ability to record sessions, giving those who couldn't attend a meeting the option to play it back later.
Skype, which is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, as well as for iPhone/iPod and Android smartphones, lets you communicate via text or voice and send files of any size to an entire group at once (especially handy for files that are too large for e-mail). Skype also lets three or more people participate in a group video call, as long as one member of the group has a $9/month Skype Premium subscription, or buys a $5 day pass.
Vyew works through a Web browser--so no software to install--and gives up to 10 people (any more requires a paid subscription) access to a virtual meeting room where they do things like share PC screens, upload files, draw on a whiteboard, and communicate via audio and videoconferencing. The room remains online at all times, so it's available any time a member of the group wants to use it.
Information sharing and document collaboration
In addition to the online meeting services listed above, the following tools allow your group to collect, organize, and centrally store information, such as class notes and other research material.
CiteULike, which you can sign into via your Facebook account, offers a place to store, organize, and share (with your own group or an existing one) links to academic papers you come across when doing online research.
With Diigo you can set up a group knowledge repository, fill it with pages gathered from around the Web, then highlight and/or annotate information via on screen "sticky notes" placed right atop the relevant area. A group's administrator has the option to enforce use of organizing tags from a defined list to ensure consistency among members.
NoteMesh is geared toward college students (a .edu e-mail address is required to register, after which you can search for classes at your specific college by department code and number), and it allows multiple students attending a particular class to contribute toward a common set of lecture notes for that class.
Via a word processor-like interface, Springnote allows you to create a group notebook, organize it by dragging-and-dropping pages, and give others the ability to view and/or edit the notebook's contents. The service imposes no limit on the number of pages in a notebook and offers a spacious 2 GB of file and image storage.
Free for educational use only, Wikidot lets students build a class wiki with pages that can include various forms of information, including items such as notes, documents, images, mathematical equations, and links to audio and video.
With Writeboard, multiple students can work together on a text document (such as a research paper). The site keeps close track of all additions or changes so you can see who edited what--and when--and easily go back to any prior version.
If you get kicked out of the group: studying at knowledge-sharing sites
Of course even online study groups can have their own quirky social dynamics and shifting allegiances, just like the one in "Community." So, what to do if you get kicked out, or if the group you want to join pulls a "Senor Chang" on you and won't let you become a member? Fortunately, another great way to benefit from group study without having to form a group is to take advantage of sites, such as Cramster, Grade Guru, Notelog, and OpenStudy. These online knowledge-sharing sites are where you can get help with homework, share class notes and other materials and ask and answer questions with other students taking the same or similar courses.