Building Collaborative Dialogue in Online Courses

Lately, I’ve been reading through a series of journal articles on the topic of creating better online learning conversations. My favorite from the last few weeks was written by Dr. Sarah Haavind, a researcher at the Science Learning By Inquiry Group. I’ll share her research question, then some practical guidance for making your online discussions and learning activities more effective.

Research Question

How do we move discussants beyond initial brainstorming and toward a more focused, deepened dialogue that clearly supports a course’s instructional goals?”

4 Elements For Building Deepened & Focused Dialogue


  1. Collaborative Design:
  2. Learning activities must go beyond discussion prompts to require exchanges between students. Discussion or project design will require students to reference and build upon the work of their peers. It’s not collaborative unless a significant element of their work is truly interdependent in nature.

  3. Collaborative Icebreakers:
  4. Icebreakers or getting-to-know-you activities, early in the course, help students to begin developing the skills needed for this kind of dialogue. These should be low-stakes, but they can still contribute to learning the subject matter.

  5. Explicit Teaching on How to Develop Collaborative Dialogue Skills:
  6. From my own experience, this is the most missed practice in online courses. As an online instructor, it’s easy to get wrapped up in providing direct instruction on the subject matter, but at the cost of helping students to develop the skills they need to thrive in an online learning environment. The courses Haavind found to have the best thread-depth and evidence of collaborative dialogue had this in common, that the instructors were not just teaching the material, they were teaching students to engage with and build upon one another’s thoughts.

    Provide Evaluative Rubrics that are Directly Linked to Collaboration:

    I’m not a big fan of assessing online discourse because I find that it distracts most instructors from participating in the conversations and that it becomes an onerous and unsustainable practice. However, if this can be applied in an 80/20 matter, with 80% of the instructor time spent engaged with students and 20% or less time spent in evaluation, then I’m all for it. The key is evaluating, not the content, but students’ contributions to the learning community. Rubrics should be succinct and specific, goal-oriented rather than content-oriented.

You can read the full-text of the article on the OLC website here: An Interpretive Model of Key Heuristics that Promote Collaborative Dialogue Among Online Learn

Protocols = Better Online Discussions

Can you imagine facilitating an online discussion in a class of more than 400 undergraduate students? A business course at the University of Central Florida proved that it could be done. What made it possible? Protocols. Read on to discover how you can create similar protocols and increase the effectiveness of your online discussions.

This case was presented in Online Learning, the journal of the Online Learning Consortium in March of 2017. The article entitled, Creating a Community of Inquiry in Large-Enrollment Online Courses: An Exploratory Study on the Effect of Protocols within Online Discussions, evidences rigorous data analysis and some practical implications for large and small online classrooms alike.

What is a protocol?

Chen and her colleagues used “protocols”; specifically, they employed something called a “tuning protocol.” Think of them as instructions, but instructions that provide learners with a structured process for giving and receiving feedback, or interacting within a discussion toward a particular goal.

Protocol Elements

This list below is an overview of the protocol elements used and tested by Chen and her colleagues. This is by no means an exhaustive set, but these should provide you with reliable starting points for developing your online discussion protocols.

  1. Give more than a prompt; delineate the process.
  2. What stages or milestones will students resolve during their discussion? Break it down into clear steps. Over the years, I’ve found that formatting matters. For example, create a Part A, Part B and place each segment title in bold. Students should know what is required to complete a particular stage of the process. This segmenting reduces the cognitive load experienced by online students in asynchronous discussions.

  3. Instructions
  4. Probably the most valuable finding in Chen’s study came from the 2nd iteration of their protocols. They saw increases in learning effectiveness when they took some of the detail out of their instructions. They concluded that “less was more.” I’ve witnessed this same dynamic when creating iterations of syllabi and when reviewing the syllabi of other instructors. The syllabi that attempt to cover every base and answer every question tend to produce more confusion for students. So, write out your discussion instructions, then edit them down to the least effective dose of words. If you can’t whittle it down, then ask the question: Is my process for this discussion just too complicated?

    In your instructions, be sure to answer the question: “How should my students interact?” These directions should require you to write just 1-3 sentences.

  5. When is this due?
  6. The study also emphasized the importance of having precise and clearly communicated due dates. For many veteran online instructors and instructional designers, this may feel like a no-brainer. However, for those of us accustomed to face-to-face discussions, we don’t think in terms of due dates. Students in online courses are trying to keep track of a myriad of items, so each stage in your protocol process needs clarity on due dates and times. Our team at Denver Seminary also adds a little note that the submission times are Mountain Time because we have learners in multiple time zones.

    The study also found that students wanted the due dates integrated into the course calendar on the LMS so that they would receive reminders. Some balk at this idea, saying that it is hand-holding. However, I’ve become convinced that online learners navigate a much more complicated landscape, one that includes many more submission requirements than a face-to-face course. When compared to a face-to-face course that requires students to show up to class once a week and listen to a lecture, these types of weekly discussions require both a high-level of self-direction and personal organization of their coursework. By reducing this cognitive load, we free students to focus more on their learning.

  7. Provide Examples
  8. The discussion developers provided students with examples of what would characterize a constructive learning conversation. Students found these helpful, mentioning them in their survey instrument submissions for the study. Examples are a great way to scaffold learning because they make descriptors like “constructive feedback” more concrete.

  9. Communicate the Purpose of the Protocol
  10. Give your students the rationale for what may appear to them as an overly detailed process. Explain how it will benefit them and briefly explain the overall goal of the discussion process. This can be as succinct as a single sentence.

The appendix of the article contains their discussion protocol. You may find this a helpful example as you look to build your discussion protocols.

To read the full article, you can access it at Online Learning, the Journal of the Online Learning Consortium:

Creating a Community of Inquiry in Large-Enrollment Online Courses: An Exploratory Study on the Effect of Protocols within Online Discussions. by Baiyun Chen, Aimee deNoyelles, Janet Zydney, Kerry Patton

7 Elements of Effective Learning Teams

Collaborative learning, groupwork, learning teams–whatever you want to call it–has one major problem: it just doesn’t work out-of-the-box. However, I find that most educators expect collaborative learning to be more intuitive. In the process of writing my next book on online instruction, I’ve been reading some really helpful literature on working with learning groups (which I believe to be a critical skill for online instructors). I’d like to synthesize some of what I’ve discovered through both research an practice in this post. Feel free to use and share the 4×6 card posted above.

  1. Group Size

  2. An ideal size for online learning teams will be 5-8 students. Different studies say different things, but they usually fall into this general range. A group of 5-8 is large enough to include students with varying points of view and a variety of strengths. I used to recommend 4-6, but this approach had two problems: a) groups of 4 tend to break up into two pairs, and b) attrition in an online classes caused either by withdraws or by nonparticipating students impacts smaller group sizes. A group that starts out at 7 or 8 usually turns out to be a group of 5-7.

  3. Organize Around a Clear Goal

  4. Give your learning teams time to get to know one another and to discuss their learning goals. Provide a clear learning goal with each assignment. This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how often we overlook this simple practice.

  5. Stay in the Same Group

  6. While variety is the spice of life, don’t change things up. It takes time to build the cohesion and trust necessary for learning teams to thrive. The need for a variety of voices can be solved by creating larger learning groups (see #1).

  7. Allow Roles to Emerge.

  8. Assigning team roles, like scribe, reporter, team lead, etc. short-circuits an important process. Each learning team is made up of individuals with a unique expertise and strengths. It’s better to allow learning teams to negotiate their roles and to discover their most natural way of relating with one another.

  9. Create Team Assignments

  10. If your learning teams use the divide-and-conquer approach, then you’ve not created a true team-learning assignment. This is where most groupwork either succeeds or goes off the rails. Good team learning assignments will require deliverables that cannot be done alone or in pairs. They require deliberation by the entire team. Your assignments/projects must require your learners to provide solutions to problems or come to a decision through a process of consensus building.

  11. Build in Accountability

  12. Michaelson and his colleagues, in their book, Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching, make it clear that for collaborative learning to be successful, students must have two forms of accountability: a) group accountability/grades, and b) individual grades. They also stress the importance of individual assessment prior to beginning group assignments. This ensures that each individual group member comes to the group prepared.

  13. Provide Feedback

  14. This is where you bring your instructional guidance, help your students to negotiate team conflicts, point them to the best resources, and help them to ask better questions when they are stuck. Each learning team will have different needs, so you’ll need to tailor your coaching to each group. When working with several learning teams of High School seniors, I discovered that it was important to drop in as often as I could. A few questions I found helpful were: What have you accomplished that you are proud of as a team? What are you finding most challenging? What questions do you have for me? You’ll notice that each of these questions assumes that there is a response. I try to stay away from questions that begin with phrases such as, “Is there anything that…” or “Have you encountered…” These elicit closed, yes/no responses an binary thinking. Whereas the open questions I provided above help to stir up exploratory thinking.

Recommended Resources

Team-Based Learning Collaborative:

Fink LD, Knight AB, Michaelsen LK (2004) Team-based learning: a transformative use of small groups in college teaching. Stylus Publ., Sterling, VA

Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging ideas: the professors guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. (see his chapter on working with learning groups)


Online Teaching Tip #29 – Why the First Weeks of Your Course are So Critical

Why the First Weeks of the Semester are so Critical

Here’s a quick way to get a picture of student participation in your class:

1. Click on your participants list in your course site.
2. Then sort you students by their last access date.

Here’s what you’ll likely see: most students are logging in once a day, or every other day. However, there will be one or two students who have not logged in for some time. With rare exception, these students will be struggling in the class.

Another interesting correlation is between professor engagement and student engagement. In courses where the professor logs in less often, and communicates less often, you’ll find that students access the course site less often, and that the number of days between logins increases. In short, professor presence directly impacts student presence. And the early days of the semester have the most impact on this dynamic.

Here are a couple ways your online engagement impacts the online classroom, especially in the early weeks of the semester:

1) You set the tone and the culture
In the first weeks of the course, you have an opportunity to set the tone of communication and the culture of the online classroom. This happens in your emails, by engaging introductions, facilitating online discussions, and adding custom elements to the course. Sometimes—but, not often—you may need to email a particular student to explain how they are coming across in their discussion posts and to give them some pointers on etiquette. In an online course, a student became accusatory and belligerent toward another student in an online discussion forum. Because the instructor was engaged in the discussions, he was able to intercept the behavior early in the semester and reset the tone of conversation in that group. At the end of the semester, the previously hostile student sent her professor a note of gratitude for making the course an excellent learning experience.

2) You have the opportunity to establish your presence in the online classroom
Supposedly, you have about 20 seconds to create a first impression in the face-to-face classroom. Students form opinions quickly, and those can be tough to change. In the first few weeks of an online course, students will figure out whether or not their instructor is really an active participant or a monitor; then, they will adjust their own engagement to match. If that social presence is not established early on, it’s a hard thing to course correct.

Email is a powerful tool for this. Timely responses and short, checking-in emails tell students you are interested in them as individuals and available to them as a resource for learning.

So, be engaged from day one so that you can set the tone and establish your presence in your online classroom.

Online Teaching Tip #28 – Calendar Your Baseline Participation

How Much Should I Participate?

One of the first questions I get from those who are new to teaching online goes something like this, “How much time should I be spending in the online classroom?” It’s hard to really give an accurate number because classes differ greatly depending on the subject matter, assignments, and individual teaching style. With that said, I think that a good baseline is to devote the weekly time you would have been in the face-to-face classroom to your online classroom. This may seem obvious to some, especially veteran online teachers, but it’s a very new and helpful baseline for those new to online teaching. So, if you teach a 3 credit hour class, put three hours in your calendar to participate and administrate your online course each week. I really mean to put it on your calendar and treat it just like an appointment.

You may be thinking, “Three hours is not nearly enough.” It may not be, but you have to start somewhere and have something to measure against as you feel out just how much time you need to really spur on your learners.

Finally, it’s important to note that this is not time for grading; it’s time devoted to interaction via discussions, email, and whatever other means you have chosen to engage your students.

Online Teaching Tip #27 – Dealing with the Disconnect in the Online Classroom

The Disconnect

Because we don’t see or hear our students in the online classroom, we can begin to forget that they exist.
Or, at least, we feel less connected to them. This is one of the challenges of both online courses, and courses that meet fewer times in the semester. When students feel this disconnect, they start to disengage. When teachers feel this disconnect, they loose the motivation to cultivate the learning environment of the online classroom. Some have pronounced this disconnect as the permanent fault of online learning, but I think that is a premature conclusion. There are ways to build warm connection with students online, but it takes different strategies and requires higher level of intention.

Here are a five ways that you can create more warm and personal connections with your students:

  • 1 – Student Photos: Go into your course participants list and look at their photos. Read the bios that some have created on their profile page. Follow links to explore their blogs and websites.
  • 2 – Introductions: If you have a course introductions forum, become an active participant in the discussion.
  • 3 – Notes: Print off your participants list and keep notes beside the name and photo of your students. This might include current life circumstances like, “Child is recovering from surgery” or “Working 3rd shift” that give you insight into the world of a particular student. You can mine the student introductions and profiles to begin your notes and add to them as you communicate over the course of the semester.
  • 4 – Use tools that allow you to see one another. We were created to recognize faces and voices. It’s an essential aspect of being human. Many courses require only text responses and assignment submissions. Take one of those assignments, like a threaded discussion, and tweak it so that it requires the posting of audio or video responses. One of our favorite tools for this is Voicethread.
  • 5 – Individual Emails. This doesn’t scale well. It requires an investment of time and care. However, when we think back to the teachers who have invested in us and made the most impact on our lives, it was because they gave us individualized attention. You may not be able to do this for all of your students, or even many of them this semester, but choose a few to contact directly via email. This is where your notes on individual students becomes a goldmine. Check in with them as learners, and find some way to encourage them.

There are more than just these five ways to connect, but these are a great place to start.

Teaching Case Studies Online: A Resource List

Teaching Case Studies Online: A Resource List

It’s difficult to find a good set of resources for teaching online case studies. While researching how to structure and moderate online case studies for one of our faculty members, I put together a list of several resources. Hopefully, you’ll find these a helpful place to start as you are learning to teach using case studies online.

Harvard business School Christensen Center for Teaching & Learning –
The definitive resource for teaching using the case method. Provides pdf downloadables, videos, teaching philosophy of case method, helps for preparing and for leading the class. While not specifically written for online learning, the andragogical methods are transferrable.

Teaching with Cases HBS Online 3 Week Seminar –
This Harvard Business School seminar addresses case question strategies for the online context, how to facilitate and debrief case discussions, using both asynchronous and synchronous technologies to facilitate case teaching and learning, and sharing successful strategies for online facilitation of cases. The cost for the 3 week seminary is very reasonable.

Considerations for Teaching Case Studies Online –
An article by Ben Scragg, instructional designer at The Ohio State University. Provides thoughts on the viability of online cases and what it is like to teach online cases. Provides a summary of six recommended strategies for setting up and moderating online cases.

Online Cases Harvard Discussion Thread –
This is a discussion with 25+ posts by Harvard Faculty who teach cases and who teach online. They provide some very valuable and helpful insights on how to prepare and moderate cases online. Note posts by Kelly, Austin, Schiano, and Harrison.

How Long Does It Take to Prepare to Teach a Case Online? –
This short video with Professor William Schiano of Bentley university provides some helpful reflections on preparing cases for the online classroom.

Teaching with Cases Book –
HBS publication by Espen and Schiano with a chapter devoted to online teaching and learning strategies for case studies.

Teaching with Cases Resources –
15 PDF downloads to supplement Teaching with Cases. This includes evaluation forms, exam rubric, and a guide for student preparation of cases.

Using the Case Method to Teach Online Classes –
In this journal article, author, Stephanie Brooke presents several different types of cases that can be used online. She points out the differences between teaching novice and seasoned online students, and she provides some pedagogical approaches to working with each group.

Effective Online Case Teaching: How to Engage Your Students from Afar –
Professors Foster and Nerkar provide an hour long video presentation on how they teach cases online. While a longer piece of content, this presents some very concrete examples of how these instructors structure and moderate online cases. This video is embedded in a summary written and posted by Allyson Freedman.

Online Teaching Tip #26 – Your Tone Matters in Teaching Online

A Story of Miscommunication

I was working with a vendor who was quite terse in his emails. He came across as curt, and I started to assume, because of his communication style, that he was rude and that he didn’t care much for our business relationship.
Then I had the opportunity to spend over an hour on the phone with him as he tried to figure out a technical problem for us. Just hearing his accent explained a lot: he was from New York. If you have friends or relatives from that part of the country, you know that they communicate differently, and to an outsider, they can come off as brusque. Because of the tone of his online communication, I drew the conclusion that this guy didn’t care much about supporting us. It turns out that he was willing to go the extra mile when we encountered a real technical issue.

If you are brief and to-the-point in your grading comments and emails, you’re likely to get misinterpreted by your students.

I see this dynamic at work between online instructors and their students. If you are brief and to-the-point in your grading comments and emails, you’re likely to get misinterpreted by your students. This is especially true if you have high expectations, and believe your students can do excellent work. If that’s the case, you are going to have to explain to your students a bit about how you communicate and how you grade.

Here are a couple ways to help your students understand your tone online:

1) Send out a “How I Communicate” email. Explain how you might be perceived, tell them a bit about your expectations, and be sure to communicate your belief that they can rise to meet those expectations.

2) Send out a  “How I Communicate” video. If they can see your face and hear your voice, they will begin reading that voice into their email communications. You’ll seem less distant, and you’ll be able to overcome some of those limitations of text-based communication.

Online Teaching Tip #25 – The Power of Invitation

invitationOne of your primary roles as an online teacher is the role of invitor. I’m not even sure if that’s a real word. If it is, perhaps it should be spelled inviter–but that just doesn’t look right. So, we’ll go with invitor. In the face-to-face classroom your very presence invites communication (I’m assuming you’re normal and not unpleasant). In the online context, you have to inject social presence into your instructional style. One of the best strategies is to use invitation in your communication.

3 Ways to use the Strategy of Invitation in your Online Course

1. Include an invitation to respond in your weekly emails. Examples: “If you need further clarification, just drop be an email.” “I’d like to hear how your weekend went” or “…if you need any assistance on the current assignment.” Now, you may be concerned that twenty students will reply, but that rarely happens. The students who need help or who want to connect with you will email you. The rest will understand that you are open and available, there when they need you.

2. Use invitations in assignments. At the end of larger assignments invite students to ask you for focused feedback. For example, at the end of a ten page paper, invite your students to pose one question to you about the subject matter, and to ask you to examine a specific section of their assignment. This requires your students to be more reflective about their own work, and it helps you to address areas of weakness that the student wants to improve.

3. Invite them to ask for more. Sometime assignments don’t require detailed feedback. Specifically, I’m thinking of threaded discussion grades. I’d rather spend my time in the discussion rather than writing lengthily comments to each student. I’ll do this for the first discussion, then I’ll simply give students a grade, refer them to the rubric, then invite them to contact me if they need more detailed feedback.

Assess Your Online Course with the CHICO Rubic

chico_rubricHere’s an award winning resource to use to quickly assess your online course. The Rubric For Online Instruction was developed by California State Univeristy, Chico in 2003, and they have continued to revise it over the years. With it, you can break down you course into 5 different areas and assess each:

  1. Learner Support and Resources
  2. Online Organization and Design
  3. Instructional Design and Delivery
  4. Assessment and Evaluation of Student Learning
  5. Innovative Teaching with Technology
  6. Faculty use of Student Feedback

Tips for Using the Rubric for Online Instruction

1. The title of the rubric is a bit misleading. Most of the rubric assesses online course design, not online instruction. But this is revealing: the foundation of good online instruction is good design. So, the tip here is to use this rubric in between semesters when you have time to make design changes on your course, not mid-semester when you are focused on instruction (for that, get my book 🙂 )

2. This thing can be a bit overwhelming, so focus on one topic at a time. Spend a day or a week on Learner Support and Resources, make one or two specific changes to your course, then move on to the next one.

3. Ask the question, “Where do I need help.” Doing a self-assessment can be discouraging because we discover our weaknesses and the gap between the online instructor we are and the one we wish to be. When you find those gaps and weaknesses, enlist a mentor or your institution’s support staff to help you improve your course.

How to download the free online course design rubric: You can download the PDF from the California State University, Chico website HERE