This module focuses on methods, processes and technologies used for effective communication and collaboration in an online learning environment.
What is Collaboration?
Collaboration is dependent upon communication, and communication is a network phenomenon.
Collaboration being dependent upon communication (in some form or another) is self-evident and requires no explanation (collaboration cannot be a solo venture), and the notion that communication is a network phenomenon is also reasonably intuitive. However it should be stressed that communication not only makes use of networks as channels, but also generates networks through its very being—entities communicating using any medium become connected nodes. Both these factors—collaboration requiring communication, and communication being a network phenomenon—make collaboration especially well suited to the Internet’s hyperlinked network structure. 
What is Communication?
Communication is defined as a process by which we assign and convey meaning in an attempt to create shared understanding. This process requires a vast repertoire of skills in intrapersonal and interpersonal processing, listening, observing, speaking, questioning, analyzing, and evaluating. Use of these processes is developmental and transfers to all areas of life: home, school, community, work, and beyond. It is through communication that collaboration and cooperation occur. 
Asynchronous vs Synchronous
There are two general strategies for communicating via the Internet: Asynchronous and Synchronous. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
There are some key advantages to asynchronous collaboration tools. For one thing, they enable flexibility. Participants can receive the information when it's most convenient for them. There's less pressure to act on the information or immediately respond in some way. People have time to digest the information and put it in the proper context and perspective. Another advantage is that some forms of asynchronous collaboration, such as email, are ubiquitous. These days, it's hard to find a co-worker, customer, business partner, consultant, or other party who doesn't have an email account.
The drawbacks of asynchronous collaboration are that they can lack a sense of immediacy and drama. There's less immediate interaction. Sometimes people have to wait hours, days, and even weeks to get a response to a message or feedback on a shared document. The lack of immediacy means that information can be out of date by the time someone views it. This is especially true in light of the rapid pace of change in today's business environment .
One of the advantages of synchronous collaboration is its immediacy. You can send and receive information right away. This more closely resembles a face-to-face or telephone conversation between two or more people, so can present a more natural way of communicating. The sense of immediacy is more like to solicit a timely response from people. Synchronous collaboration, in general, is more interactive than asynchronous. 
The downside of synchronous collaboration is that not everyone uses it. Although instant messaging, chat, and other such tools are becoming more common, they're still not as ubiquitous as technology such as email. Another drawback is that synchronous collaboration is not as flexible as asynchronous. All the parties involved must be ready and willing to collaborate at a given moment-or the session doesn't work as well. Also, not everyone does well with this kind of collaboration, particularly people who like to think over what they want to communicate .
When should you use asynchronous and synchronous collaboration? Much of the decision-making on this involves common sense. Asynchronous collaboration, such as email and document sharing, can certainly be used for day-to-day communications when an urgent response isn't needed. This sort of communication is suitable for sending out broadcast messages that don't necessarily need to be acted on right away, or for corresponding with clients, customers. and business partners without putting pressure on them to respond immediately.
On the other hand, you wouldn't want to use asynchronous collaboration if you need immediate interaction with people or if you seek to collaborate with a large group at the same time. Email wouldn't work, for example, as the sole means of conducting a staff meeting.
Synchronous collaboration is ideal when the collaboration needs to be immediate and spontaneous, like a conversation between two or more people. Using real-time chat, instant messaging, electronic whiteboarding, and other such tools is appropriate for virtual meetings, where parties in remote locations are expected to participate and ask questions. In many cases, these types of collaborations might serve as supplements to telephone conference calls.
Synchronous collaboration wouldn't be suitable for situations that call for less immediate response or where parties aren't able to respond right away. For example, it might not work as a way to collaborate with customers on new product design or development.
For many organizations, asynchronous and synchronous collaboration will each prove valuable in their own way .
Best Practices for the Asynchronous and Synchronous Classroom
Beyond the principles of classroom management that apply to all distance-learning environments, there are some particular considerations for asynchronous versus synchronous classrooms. Read the following "Best Practices" for further guidance on when to use asynchronous or synchronous collaboration .
Asyncronous Best Practices
Synchronous Best Practices
I know these activities are eating into your precious time for presenting content. But the truth is that you will have more success teaching content if you break up your time and allow students to stretch their mental legs and actually participate with the course content, students and instructor.
Forms of Dialog
Input from a facilitator who can decipher the message in a dialogue and guide the path is essential for encouraging collaboration. You will serve an invaluable role when you, as the facilitator, can capably utilize constructive elements of a dialog to sharpen the focus and point to areas in which further dialogue is needed to generate growth and learning.
The categories of social, argumentative, and pragmatic dialogue tell you which elements of participants' posts have potential to generate and continue reasoned discourse.
The participant below is a teacher enrolled as a student in an online course geared for teachers to who want to teach online. She described her experiences in the Water Cooler area as follows:
I do think that both I (and my students) learn as much from fooling around on the 'Net as we do when involved in "serious business." It seems to me that one thing we've all seen is that "boding" happens more easily in the Water Cooler than on the assignments. And I've been thinking of all kinds of ways to use a similar space to accomplish the goal of bonding in my AP Netclass. Which only makes sense, since that is exactly what I do in my "real" AP class (and more there than in my "regular courses").
Though presented in the Water Cooler, this response indicates a familiarity with the medium of dialogue that goes beyond simple social interaction. This teacher uses observation and personal reflection to invite substantive discussion about the "bonding" she has experienced in the Water Cooler, and she muses about the potential for her own AP net course. Thus, the goals of the community-building assignments have been attained: She has moved beyond social dialogue and shallow discussions about terms and negotiating the meaning of assignments and spaces. She has also developed a confidence and a personal voice, as shown in this communication.
Beyond communications in spaces designed for social interaction, social dialogue will continue to be evident in many responses in task-oriented area. These social pieces are what might be termed the "ritual elements of dialogue," which include discussion of weather or the drive to work, short personal musings, daily interactions with participants, or other discussion "openers." There elements commonly provide a frame or context for moving to interaction with ideas on a deeper level. Participants often give clues to their opinions, or perhaps evidence of assumptions or beliefs, through what may be seemingly unrelated social dialogue elements.
MESSAGE SUBJECT: Re: Educational Reform
This participant, in his introduction, offers some excuses for being out of the dialogue. Yet he feels sufficiently supported by the moderator to be honest and even humorous about his late and unprepared entry. This paragraph is followed by thoughtful and well-articulated sparring with some of the main ideas and purposes of educational reform, which he then relates to the "ill-conceived" efforts at his school. Empty areas do pose challenges for participants and for you as the facilitator. This participant boldly posted a thoughtful entry triggered by what seems to be a hot button: "educational reform." If you were the moderator here, you then identify specific assumptions and parallels in the course readings to make concrete any concerns about their relevancy and purpose.
Challenging someone's assertions based on personal experience or appeals to revered sources taken at face value often lead to defensive reactions and lengthy verbal jousting is often called argumentative dialogue, and not pragmatic, reasoned dialogue. Participants thus disengage, and dialogue short circuits.
It is important for participants to feel unconstrained and supported as they attempt to go beyond commitment to an idea or assumption and examine their long-held beliefs. An exchange whose form may initially be argumentative can transition to a dialogue that values inquiry -- if participants and you the moderator maintain a stance in which ideas are examined openly and honestly with questions like, "Can you help me to think more clearly about these issues?" or "Can you help me think more clearly about what I've just stated? I find this approach very attractive but don't really find it convincing." As moderator, you can model moving away from defending individual positions and toward an inquiry into why beliefs or assumptions are held to be valid.
The authoritative stance can, unfortunately, become authoritarian if it enters strongly and often into such dialogue, brining with it the capacity to circumvent further insight, albeit unintentionally. All disciplines have authorities; the champions of one set of views or another. The challenge for you the moderator is not identifying authoritarian elements in a dialogue, but moving the conceptual frame away from a debate about "sides" to a reasoned examination of the sources of belief. If you the moderator openly examine the "why" of statements and their relevance to current issues or content, you build a ramp to more fertile explorations.
Passive form of argumentative dialogue. The argumentative stance can also hide behind a more subtle format -- another use of advocacy. Advocating a certain view can serve as a type of possible resistance to change. Once the dialogue is perceived as a place to take positions and defend the, outcomes become limited to what is "given" and knowledge construction is limited to what participants already understand. One participants for example, writes:
I have learned to read all articles regarding the teaching of mathematics with a skeptical view. First, you must realize that the author is trying to get a point across and there fore goes too much to one side of an issue. Second and last, every teacher knows that balance is the key. The subject matter doesn't even matter. Too much of the one method is never beneficial, for teacher or student. A successful teacher varies methods and keeps changing and improving his/her lessons. So what if an author seems to support one method versus another. They got you to think about what you do in the classroom and for that they are successful!
There is certainly nothing off track about voicing a healthy sense of skepticism. Certainly, bringing ideas into question is central to any process of inquiry, scientific or otherwise. The writer here posts that "balance is the key," but the key to what? What precisely is to be balanced? The posting is a bit of a closed door; the respondent does not engage the productive element: "Think[ing] about what you do in a classroom." Resistance to methods or presentations that are perceived as argumentative or perhaps rhetorical is evident.
Pragmatic dialogue is reasoned discourse whose process serves end beyond the dialogue itself. Its goal is not to persuade, but rather to inquire and to use the dialogue to inform participants in both a collective and an individual way so that they exchange carried thoughts, ideas, and approaches to whatever subject matter they're considering.
There are three essential ways that pragmatic dialogue differs from social and argumentative forms of dialogue.
Participants in pragmatic dialogue value the tough questions and the importance of the unknown. They don't assume the validity of generalizations, beliefs, or statements of fact; instead, they're honestly open to genuinely questioning. They welcome both confirming and challenging data and interpretations. Pragmatic dialogue strongly supports inquiry and reflective thinking.
Goals of Moderating in a Pragmatic Dialogue
Goal one: Building community. Cultivating a social environment and extended interaction within an online discussion group requires particular care if the community is to be perceived by participants as more than just a string of emails or postings. As moderator you need to build climate that will foster professional learning or collaboration by crafting communications that support a sense of safety in the discussion areas.
Clearly all learning communities, online and off, share this concern at some level. In cultivating pragmatic dialogue, maintaining a sense of safety is particularly pressing. Inquiry is an intimate process. The expectation is that participants should distance themselves from their own thoughts and beliefs in order to design the best project possible or engage in the greatest possible learning. The online environment is which inquiry can flourish is gradually built by collaborative and collective contributions. Such collaborative efforts are likely to result in better outcomes, designs, practices, or products.
Doing any inquiry at all involves an additional factor: risk taking. In the process of inquiry, one often feels unsure of uneasy, at least to some extent. The clarity of the goal, its meaning or relevance, the adequacy of tools, or personal skill in using new tools are all likely to come into questions at one time or another. Participants must feel safe to take intellectual risks that can lead to new ways of seeing and new discoveries. They will rely on your the moderator to foster an environment in which they feel safe to express themselves openly and work through their personal and conceptual uncertainty.
Goal Two: Supporting a culture of respect. Participants should feel that what they say matters and is valued by the other members of the community. This cultivation of respect, seen as an extension of civility to an Internet environment, is certainly not new. In moderating for inquiry, with its concern for both openness and uncertainty, an atmosphere of respect takes on added value. In the process of inquiry, individuals may hold up their own beliefs, or perhaps beliefs or assumptions they do not personally espouse, for careful examination. Individuals must feel that, in this process, they are respected and valued for contributing to the productive discussion of the online community.
Goal Three: Cultivating reasoned discourse. The central goal of moderating pragmatic dialogue is supporting the intellectual content of the online community. That support may take several forms.
As moderator, you're responsible for maintaining a forward direction of the dialogue. It's context -- perhaps an academic course, a project, or a community service forum -- defines the goals of such an dialogue. Informed by the problems or goals of the discussion, you must focus emerging ideas and juxtapose emerging tensions. Participants then sense forward direction in the form of great clarity, richer content or context, and a deeper personal vision of or engagement with the goals of the course through the process of inquiry.
As moderator, you should, by omission in the commentary or redirection, identify tangential lines of thought that may not, in the short term, contribute to deepening the discussion. In supporting inquiry as a "Guide on the Side," you cannot be scared of guiding. Inquiry does not just happen; all ideas are not equally productive. However, tangential ideas are contributed for a reason, and they can become an important source of caparison or alternative view points later in a discussion. Weaving elements of these seemingly discarded pieces back into the dialogue at a later time as springboards for new reflections is an important function of capable moderating toward specific goals.
Cultivating a sense of ownership over the central elements of discourse is also essential to supporting inquiry. "Owning the questions" is another way to capture the idea. Participants should feel that their ideas are defining the direction of the dialogue. As moderator, you should make explicit connections between participants' responses and the tasks or goals of the dialogue. Though one of the main tools for moderating is asking questions, you must also pay careful attention to "whose question is being asked?" If, as moderator, you initiate too many lines of questioning, the power balance of the dialogue shifts and any chance for genuine inquiry suffers. Occupying a central place in the dialogue and asking or formulating the driving questions, or putting up flurries of questions, puts you unduly in charge as moderator. Repeating, clarifying, restating, juxtaposing, extending, and contrasting issues and important line of questioning are more productive tasks for you as you attempt to foster pragmatic dialogue.
Once you are clear on the form each posting represents -- social, argumentative, or pragmatic -- you can more easily analyze how best to intervene in an active discussion.
Know Your Learners
Remember that your discussions, in fact your course, is not about you, it's about them, your students. The more you know about them, the more you can write student-focused content, activities and deepen discussions and learning and craft the learning experience to meet students where they are. Most of all knowing your students will better able you to tap into sources of motivation. Not enough can be said about motivation in creating successful discussions and overall learning experiences. Motivation is the ingredient to successful educational programs. No motivation, no learning. Of course motivation is a highly personal thing; what motivates one student will leave another completely cold. A wise facilitator will work to discover an individual student's personal motivations and then work to enhance them by means of the content of the discussion and the feedback, thereby creating a meaningful, positive experience.
When crafting questions or seeking ways to motivate participants to engage in discussion look for generational themes to connect with. Keep in mind some of the life-defining events of each generation.
Know Your Generations
(Adapted from "Higher Education, Blended Learning and the Generations: Knowledge is Power -- No More," by Charles Dziuban, Patsy Moskal and Joel Hartman, Research Initiative for Teaching Effectiveness, University of Central Florida and Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers, and Nexters in Your Workplaces, by Ron Zemke, Claire Raines, and Bob Filipczak, Amacom, 2000)
Millennials are the youngest generation currently in the workforce and in higher education. Born between 1981 and 1994, Millennials are fully digital and expect organizations to make technology available as a matter of course. E-mail, instant messaging, blogging, and cell phones are not technology to Millennials any more than telephones are technology to Boomers. Millennials are adept at cutting and pasting offerings to get what they want out of them, creating an entirely customized world for themselves in the process. Perhaps a bit on the naive side in terms of information literacy and validating knowledge, Millennials as students are eager and willing to participate in team projects although they benefit from clear direction and perhaps a few more-seasoned individuals on the team. Not incidentally, the characteristics of this up-and-coming market are well aligned with distance-learning approaches .
Some instructors create a survey questionnaire that collects data on your enrolled students. For example the survey can include questions about previous online learning experiences, previous education, personal and or professional interests, course expectations and special needs. This survey is sent out to enrolled students well ahead of the first session.
Another method of getting to know your students and build community in an online class is the via a Biography, or bio form. This method can include much of the same information as the survey questionnaire, but is often posted in an online environment and is shared with the class. Most online bio environments also include a feature to upload a picture. Most fields are editable, allowing students to pick and choose what information they would like to share with the class. As a result, you may not get the information you want in order to get to know your students better for purposes of course design. Requests from students to remain private must be honored.
Encouraging Participation in Online Collaboration and Communication
Instill Good Netiquette
Netiquette refers to etiquette on the Internet, the do's and dont's of online communication. Good netiquette involves respecting others' privacy and not doing anything online that will offend other people. Three areas where good netiquette is highly stressed are e-mail, online chat, and newsgroups. For example, people that spam other users with unwanted e-mails or flood them with messages have very bad netiquette. You don't want to be one of those people. Another example is if you use all CAPTIAL LETTERS in your message you can come across as screaming at recipient of the email. If you're new to online communication, it will help to review the netiquette guidelines before jumping in.
Build Group Coherence
You can build group coherence by emphasizing and demonstrating good collaboration practices. Review the Characteristics of a Group That is Performing Effectively with your students. It is not enough to convey course content with online learners just once and expect them to remember it throughout the course. It is good practice to reference this information prior to each group activity.
Characteristics of a Group That is Performing Effectively
Prepare for Effective Discussions
5 Suggestions for Equitable Online Facilitation
While online courses are becoming increasingly available, online facilitators are faced with finding effective strategies that help promote excellence in teaching and learning. Knowing and implementing ways to facilitate that respect diversity and ensures equitable interaction is a sure step in the right direction. This could result in deeper insights, reflection, and understanding .
Choose technologies that support your instructional values and learning outcome goals.
Types of Technologies
Blogs - A blog is an easy way to create an online journal with chronological postings. Many blogs also allow for comments and means to connect to other blogs. Blogs can be individually authored, but are often are the collaborative efforts of multiple authors. Lots of blogs on a variety of topics are hosted on Google's Blogger. 7 Things You Should Know About Blogs
Web 2.0 - Web 2.0 is a term credited to Tim O'Reilly that refers to recent movements in website design including greater interactivity, simplicity of design, extensibility, and greater use of and connections between data and people. Two technologies that embrace "Web 2.0" are wikis and blogs. Popular "Web 2.0" websites include Netvibes (news reading), Flickr (photo sharing), Digg (story rating), and Last.fm (music sharing).
Discussion Boards - Discussion boards operate much like e-mail, but in a localized place where everyone can see all messages and who replied to whom (threads). Conversation on discussion boards happens asynchronously, or over time. Here at UW-Madison, our course management system Learn@UW offers instructors discussion boards for their classes.
Teleconferencing and Videoconferencing - Conferencing systems are another means of real-time communication where participants can hear and sometimes see each other. Here at the University of Wisconsin, Instructional Communication Systems (Extension) offers both tele- and video- conferencing systems. Skype is another popular conferencing solution.
(Collaborative Technologies, ACTWAN - Aligning Collaboration Tools With Academic Needs, 2007)
Choosing the Best Technology
Let’s say on a chart, you’ve got ease-of-use and flexibility on one axis and inflexibility and flexibility on the other. Many tools that are easy-to-use lack the level of functionality to create complex interactions while many tools that are not so easy to use provide greater functionality and flexibility in the design process. The cost of the tools often (but not always) reflect this. In my experience, tools with a great deal of functionality normally cost more or require a good deal of support.
But wait, we shouldn’t be selecting tools to design with. Shouldn’t the design process for e-learning be independent of the tool? If the best way to learn something can be accomplished using e-learning (over other methods of delivery) then the authoring tool used to create the e-learning should be the one that can provide the level of interaction needed. What do you want the learner to do? If you want them to ‘listen for this’ ‘ask for that’ with a corrective feedback loop, then you’ll need a tool that can do that. If that can be accomplished with an easy-to-use tool that you can learn to use in the appropriate time period, sweet. If you need more flexibility in the design but lack the time to learn how to use the tool, then you should probably consider hiring someone to create the e-learning you need. There’s nothing worse than knowing exactly what you want the output to look like but being stuck within the confines of a template. Similarly, it’s awful to just want a template and have to work with a complex tool. I hate to admit it but an authoring tool nearly made me cry once.
There are a lot of other questions to consider…
Two of the questions within the ‘big question’ were “what should learning professionals do to stay up-to-speed? Do they need to learn new tools constantly?”
Can an engineer draft out a design on paper on a drafting table instead of using 3D modeling software? Yes, absolutely. But is that the best way for what is being created?
Every profession has to stay up-to-speed on what’s out there in their field but I don’t think it’s feasible for learning professionals to constantly use new tools. I think you’d get into a cycle where the only person learning is you…
Let your students know how their course collaboration will be evaluated and if it is a portion of their grade. Below are a couple of rubrics to use in your course. You could also design these rubrics to be used by your students as a peer evaluation form.
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Last Updated: August 4, 2008
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