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

Online Teaching Tip #16 – Your Core Question for Online Discussions

The One Question that Drives How You Facilitate Online Discussionbloom_taxonomy

Here's the question: How can I move this student (or group of students) to the next level?

You're probably thinking, "Aaron, where are you getting these 'levels'." I'm getting them from Mr. Bloom, and his associates (see Bloom's Updated Taxonomy). Their taxonomies will provide you with grid to 1) Determine what level your student is on, and 2) Think through what would move them to the next level.

Example #1 - Cognitive Focus

If the discussion has a more cognitive focus, I'll ask myself, "How could I move this student from understanding the content to applying it to a scenario?" or "How could I move this group of students from analyzing the data to evaluating its validity?"

Example #2 - Affective Focus

If your discussion goals are more affective, dealing with learners' values and emotional responses to the content, then get familiar with the Affective Taxonomy. This taxonomy is more difficult for teachers to grasp, but it's an essential tool  for learning. Here's a great resource created by the National Science Foundation: Affective Domain Page. 

When addressing the affective domain, I'll ask myself, "How can I help this student to become aware of the values latent in his response?" or "How can I challenge her to consider the values that undergird the opposing viewpoint?"

That's just a few examples of how we can use one question to move our learners to the next level in online discussions.

Online Teaching Tip #15 – Your Role as Discussion Facilitator

Your Role as Online Discussion Facilitatorsteering

It can be difficult to feel out your role in online discussions. In my years of teaching online, I've come to see that the discussions don't need managed, but they do need our leadership. Here are three different strategies you can use to take that leadership role with your online discussions.

1. Ask For More. This is particularly effective in the early stage of a discussion. Write a simple response asking a student to elaborate on their thoughts. Ask them to "Tell me more about..." or "Explain what you meant by..."

2. Resource. Give your students web links or textbook page numbers to help them explore the topic. They are new to the subject matter and do not always know how to find quality information about the topic.

3. Challenge. I like to take an indirect approach to this, especially as my students are getting familiar with me and still growing to trust me (which can take longer online). I'll ask, "Suppose that a person were to disagree with your statement, '...', How would you respond to them?" I enjoy playing the devil's advocate, but I'll often wait until later in the semester to do so directly.

These are the three foundational strategies that I'd recommend you add to your facilitation toolbox.


Online Teaching Tip #14 – Some Criteria for Online Discussions

Some Criteria For Online Discussionscriteria

In Online Teaching Tip #13, I explained how using the wrong grading criteria for online discussions can kill student interaction. Now I'd like to answer the question, "What criteria should I use when grading my online discussions?"

1. First get the big picture. Ask yourself what the learning goal is for your discussions or a particular discussion. Your criteria should correspond to your learning goals.

2. Require Interaction. How many posts/responses will you require?

3. What should characterize learner interactions? Critical thinking? Problem solving? Integration? Be sure to explain what you mean to your students when using those criteria.

4. Timeliness. You'll need deadlines and timeline. How long will your discussion last? Within that discussion, when do posts and responses need to be made in order for the discussion to have a sense of continuity? Deduct for late posts. Discussions without post dates are like a shark with no teeth.

5. What about spelling and grammar? Don't major on it; minor on it. I tell my students that there will be a 20% deduction for any posts wherein the spelling and grammar are of such a low quality that they make it difficult to read and understand their posts. If I'm having to reread a sentence three times, or trying to divine the meaning of their posts, then we have a problem. This would be the same criteria I would use in a face-to-face discussion.

Online Teaching Tip #13 – Discussions are Not Essays


Online Discussions are Not Essays

This can be a hard one. Here's why.

As teachers, we are used to grading text-based documents a certain way. And those documents, research papers, essays, and the like, need to follow a very clear line of thought. They need to be free of spelling and grammatical errors. Citations are  are critical for both academic integrity and validating the information (the truth).

But the online discussion, though it is text-based, is a different animal altogether, and should be treated as such. It is a discussion. Discussions follow a line of thought, but it is often circuitous. There are interjections and rabbit trails, because it is dynamic, and because it's a process of discovery. Imagine that you are in a discussion and someone corrects your use of English, or requires you to provide a citation (you may know people who actually do this--we avoid conversations with them). Such criteria stifles discussion. And when used, students stop sharing their opinions--a necessary initial phase of any discussion. They revert to writing mini-essays, and the emerging interaction between students withers on the vine.

In Sum: Using the wrong criteria to assess online discussions can be like an early frost--it'll kill your discussions.

In future tips, I'll spell out some criteria that will help you to both make your online discussions true discussions and help you hold your students to a standard of quality in their online interaction.