How students can collaborate online

How can we translate offline modes of collaboration online?

Peter Ellerton Mar 31, 2020

The first thing teachers usually worry about when teaching online is what programs to use and how to drive them. Figuring out what is possible and then how to do it can be very daunting, particularly if you're not at home with computers to begin with!

Once we learn how they all work, the next concern is getting a whole bunch of content uploaded so students can access it. This can include things like Powerpoints, worksheets, videos, weblinks and so on.

The last thing teachers usually worry about is pedagogy: wondering how to navigate the learning environment, which includes engaging with what and how students are thinking.

In face to face classrooms, there are a number of tried and true methods to make sure students are able to collaborate with the teacher and the rest of the class. I have spoken about the importance of this elsewhere.

But how can we do this online? Let's have a look at the kinds of tools that can move an online classroom from students passively receiving content to actively engaging in learning and thinking. I won't look at any particular program, but you can find these things in most online teaching platforms worth their salt.

Tools of collaboration

At one end of the scale we have students accessing prerecorded or uploaded content. This is one-way or "asynchronous" teaching. There is little to no interaction and it represents the poorest kind of collaborative online experience for students.

But it gets more interesting when you add a few features and move towards a more "synchronous" model. Let's look at these in turn ...

  1. Hands/emoticons/tick-cross/thumbs up-thumbs down.

    These allow students to let the teacher know how they are going in simple terms. They appear alongside the student names.

  2. Public and private chats

    Students can write in a section of the screen, ask questions or make comments, or even answer questions asked by the teacher or another student. A nice function is that these chats can also be private between a student and a teacher, that is to say that the other students can't see it.

  3. Break out rooms (BORs)

    BORs are great for allowing students to work with each other in small groups that are isolated from each other. They allow opportunities for all students to have a voice, which is sometimes hard in a full class.

  4. Audio/video interaction

    If there is enough bandwidth, it might be possible for students to ask questions or make comments verbally and occasionally with video. This is sometimes good in BORs, where students can engage in more natural conversations and see each other's expressions.

  5. Sharing screens

    When screens can be shared, it is sometimes much easier to get points across to the group. Teachers can usually share their screens and allow students to share theirs.

  6. Interactive whiteboards

    These devices allow students to draw or type in a common space that allows everyone to see how a group response shapes up. Used creatively these can capture and enhance collaboration.

  7. Polling tools

    Teachers can ask students questions and have the results collated and displayed to the group. They can also be done privately so that each student is not influenced by the response of the others.

It pays to consider not only that these are available, but what they allow you to do in terms of student collaboration and sharing of thinking in the classroom that is a fundamental aspect of maintaining student engagement.