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)


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

Online Teaching Tip #24 – Give Them Structure

structure2I’ve been touching on some common bad habits that online teachers fall into. Tip #22 addressed the bad habit of checking email as the first thing you do in your teaching day or week. Tip #23 addressed the bad habits that flow from an obsession with covering material. The final bad habit in this set of three is the habit of dropping resources and assignments into a online course site without some kind of framework or method. I can’t tell you how many sites I’ve seen that look like a pile of links. As a student, this is very disorienting.

A lot of this goes back to how you’ve designed and organized your course site. Your students need course structure that makes sense. Here are 3 quick tips to keeping your online class site structured.

1. If your site already has that, then use it. If it doesn’t then create topic headings (in Moodle these are called “labels”) where you keep assignments or readings in a common area.

2. When you add new resources or a new assignment, be sure to contact your students and let them know where they have been placed on the course site.

3. Finally, when adding resources, be sure to give them a title that makes sense to your students.

Online Teaching Tip #23 – A Bad Habit To Avoid

questionIf you’ve read through some of these online teaching tips, or read my book, Excellent Online Teaching, you’ve picked up on the fact that I believe good online teaching is built on good habits. You’ve probably had a teacher in high school or college who got by on charisma. You didn’t learn much from them, but at least they were likeable. That kind of teacher won’t last a semester online. Teaching online demands that we jettison bad habits and build a repertoire of good teaching habits. I try to stay on the positive side of things, but nn Online Teaching Tip #22, I addressed a particular bad habit that can derail your entire week. In this tip, I want to address another one of those bad habits, and offer some alternatives.

To set this up, I need to reference a conversation I had a few weeks back. I was talking with a student who had recently graduated from a well-respected school. Reflecting on his years of education there, he said:

“I was surprised that they (my teachers) didn’t really care to hear my questions; it’s like they didn’t want me to think on my own.”

I’ve been trying to figure out the bad habit behind this one. Was it his instructors’ failure to really listen?  Perhaps. Maybe it was that they just didn’t care about him as a person? No, that’s not it. I think it’s a problem, really a habit (surprise, surprise) that we all have a hard time with: that we are driven by a need to cover as much content as possible.

When I first started teaching, I was aghast at how little my students knew about the subject matter. I felt like I needed to do two years of work just to get them up to speed. Then I had to teach everything that we were supposed to cover for that year. So, I fell into really two bad habits:

1 – Thinking that teaching = covering content

2 – Thinking that the responsibility of learning was on my shoulders (I was teacher-centered).

The result is that you don’t have time to listen to your students. You forget that they have questions. Inquiry wilts on the vine while we pour content over them in the hope that they’ll absorb it. I call this one a meta-habit because it generates other poor teaching habits. Howard Hendricks, one of my favorite teachers of teachers has said:

If you want to cover something, then use a blanket.

learner-centered-teaching-book.jpgWhat’s the alternative?

1. Get a copy of Maryellen Weimer’s book Learner-Centered Teaching. Or you can read my extended book review here on this site.

2. As you facilitate your online courses, get in a habit of asking generative questions. What I mean by generative question is asking questions that stimulate inquiry.

3. Ask yourself, “How am I asking my students to use the content this week and not just to understand it.”

Online Teaching Tip #22 – Never Check Email First

Checking email at the internet kiosksIf you want to be conventional, be sure that the first thing you do at the beginning of the week is to check your email.As an online teacher, I’ll explain two big reasons why this is maybe the worst habit you could begin.

1. It puts you into a reactive mode instead of a proactive one. Essentially, you’re derailing yourself by allowing your student’s problems and legitimate needs drive you. You want to be driven by the things that got you into teaching. Instead, read something that is going to make you a better teacher. Or sit down and just write out the three goals you have for your online teaching this week. Better yet, identify the one or two tasks you could accomplish that would make the biggest difference for your online learners–then do them (before checking email). Steven Covey said that we are 5000 times more productive when we are being proactive instead of reactive.

2. If your checking email first, you’re probably allowing other people to set the emotional tone for your week. Most emails don’t start with, “I just wanted to thank you for…” or “I just wanted to give you…” –they start or end with a problem. Starting your day trying to solve problems is a drain. Starting your whole week that way on a Monday morning is even worse. Instead, start with a work activity that is going to give you perspective and energy.

What habit could you begin at the beginning of your week teaching that would be proactive, give you perspective, increase your productivity, and give you energy?

photo by barnaby jeans

Put a Tripwire in An Online Assignment (or How I Got a Free Book)

decisive.pngEarlier this year I got a free advanced copy of Decisive from Chip and Dan Heath before it was released to the public.  I got  it because of a tripwire. I’ll explain.

So, here’s how it happened. I signed up for the Heath brothers’ online newsletter so that I could download a PDF that summarizes their book Made to Stick. A few months later, they emailed to give me access to a chapter from their forthcoming book. Towards the end of that chapter, hidden somewhere in the middle of a page, they cached something like this in a parenthesis: “(If you email us some feedback about this chapter, we would love to send you an advanced copy of our new book Decisive.)” That hidden sentence was the tripwire. They could have put this at the beginning of the chapter, or in their email, but they wanted feedback from people who they knew really read most or all of the chapter, not just those moochers who wanted a free book that they might not even read.

In that book, Decisive, they explain how the band Van Halen required a bowl of M&M’s backstage as a tripwire for their shows. You can read the entire story by downloading the first chapter from their site:

mmsSo, I thought I’d try this out with my online students. I had created a 10 minute screencast to coach my students on a particular phase of an assignment. It was critical that their teams watch all of it (it was a collaborative project). I knew that if they didn’t watch the entire thing, then I might have a bunch of confused learners, poor quality submissions, and a lot more work on my hands. So, I set a tripwire.

I told the students that somewhere in their screencast, they would find an unusual phrase. They needed to take the phrase and type it into the header of their next assignment. Without the phrase, their maximum grade would be an 85%.

It worked!

Here are a few benefits I noticed from using a tripwire in online assignments:

1) It saved me time and put the responsibility back on the learners. Usually, I’d be tempted to create a quiz or to have my student fill out something that said, “I’ve watched the whole thing…” Why should the instructor be doing more work in order to get students to meet basic expectations? This put the ball back in their court.

2) It created mystery. They were listening for the phrase and more attentive as a team to the screencast. Of course, I didn’t try hard to hide the phrase; in fact, I pointed it out, but they still had no idea at what minute and second it was going to pop up.

3) It was fun. I made the phrase silly. They all involved some small animal, a geographic location, and some kind of martial arts noun. For example. Galilean Ninja Weasel.

Try it out. How could you give teeth to an assignment like watching online lectures or completing reading or a screencast by using a tripwire?

Online Teaching Tip #21 – Engage More

unavailableYour online students presume that you are unavailable. That may sound harsh, but it’s one of the realities of teaching in the online context. What follows that belief is that your students will leave you alone. There are always the exceptions, the students who proactively email you every week, but most are content to believe that you are merely monitoring the course. It’s up to you to dismantle that belief (that you are unavailable) by making the first move and engaging your students. Student evaluations consistently give higher scores to instructors who are intentional about engaging their students.

How to Engage Your Online Students More (than you are right now) – 4 Ways

1. Know your means of engagement. Class-wide messaging, email, assignments, gradebook, skype, phone, letter (if you want to really get their attention). Make a list and know what’s available to you.

2. Create basic engagement habits. I recommend that you have at least two: your weekly email that goes out to the entire class, and that you work through your class list and send out a personalized email to every student in the course during the semester. Put it in your calendar, otherwise it just won’t happen.

3. Tell them. In all of your communications, remind them that you want to hear from them and are available.

4. Reply. I hate that I even have to include this one, but I see this way too often. Make a commitment to your students to return their emails, and set the expectation for a reasonable time frame. I recommend 48 hours. See Communication Expectations in online teaching Tip #8.

Online Teaching Tip #20 – When You Feel Overwhelmed

tempOverwhelm comes with the territory of the teacher. But the online classroom is especially fragmenting. I think this is due to the fact that we work with so many intangibles. Instead of a stack of papers, we have a set of online submissions. Instead of a series of conversations in person during a set time before or after class, communication with our students is distributed across our weeks, often in short replies to their emails, and embedded in online discussions. It demands more of our mental capacity. And when the demand on our mental capacity increases, the temperature on the overwhelmometer rises.

I was talking with a good friend this week who is teaching his first online course, and he is experiencing this in full force. I’d like to share with you the two pieces of advice that I shared with him.

When you are overwhelmed by your online course(s)

1. Give yourself permission to keep things simple. My friend is developing his course while teaching it. He’s teaching week one, while creating content and learning activities for weeks two and three. You can feel the weight of this can’t you? I told him to keep his course as simple as possible, to put 25% of his energies into development and 75% of his energy into facilitating the course. Student evaluations tell us this over and over: course design is important, but how we facilitate the course is what really matters to them.

2. Focus your teaching energy on the top 3 habits of the excellent online teacher.  The first is proactive communication. Be consistent with getting out your weekly email, and prompt in replies. The second is to be prompt in your grading. Put assignment grading in your calendar so that you can make sure it gets done. The third is to give your students meaningful and useful feedback in discussions and on larger assignments.  If you are overwhelmed, I want to be that voice of assurance that says, “You don’t need to work yourself to death this week; just figure out how you can engage these three things well, and you’re going to be okay.”