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

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 4x6 card posted above.

    1. Group Size

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.

    1. Organize Around a Clear Goal

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.

    1. Stay in the Same Group

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).

    1. Allow Roles to Emerge.

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.

    1. Create Team Assignments

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.

    1. Build in Accountability

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.

    1. Provide Feedback

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.

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.

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