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

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