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Communication & Collaboration

Two teachers in front of computer discussing.


This module focuses on methods, processes and technologies used for effective communication and collaboration in an online learning environment.

Collaboration and Communication

What is Collaboration?

Teachers discussing. Collaboration gives people the opportunity to communicate, to collectively author, edit and review materials and to develop a community of learners who are working toward a shared outcome. To this end, there are many collaborative activities such as peer review, sharing experiences, and lab work, which can enable this process. (ACTWAN Working definition of Collaboration [2])

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. [8]

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. [1]

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Asynchronous vs Synchronous

There are two general strategies for communicating via the Internet: Asynchronous and Synchronous. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

Asynchronous communication and activities take place outside of real time. For example, a learner sends you an e-mail message. You later read and respond to the message. There is a time lag between the time the learner sent the message and you replied, even if the lag time is short. Bulletin board messages can be added at any time and read at your and the learners’ leisure; you do not read someone else’s message as it is being created, and you can take as much time as you need to respond to the post. Asynchronous activities take place whenever learners have the time to complete them. For example, viewing videos linked to the course site, reading a textbook, and writing a paper are all asynchronous activities [5].
Picture of an email page.

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 [6].

Discussion board In contrast, synchronous, or real-time, communication takes place like a conversation. If your class uses only writing-based tools to communicate, the only synchronous communication possible is a chat session. Everyone gets online in the same chat room and types questions, comments, and responses in real time. Synchronous activities may include chat sessions, whiteboard drawings, and other group interactive work. If your class involves multimedia tools, synchronous communication might involve audio or video feeds to the computer. Some “online” courses require learners and teachers to get together at least once (or sometimes several times) in person, by conference call, or through closed-circuit television links [5].

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. [4]

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 [6].

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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 [6].

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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 [3].

Asyncronous Best Practices

  • Keep it organized

    Most asynchronous discussion environments allow for threaded discussions, in which replies appear below and indented from the original comments. Threads make it easy to tell who is responding to whom; you can follow a complete dialogue among several people simply by reading down the thread.
    Example of a asynchronous discussion
    Threads are easier to follow if the participants change the subject line when the direction of the dialogue changes, but even seasoned users are apt to forget this detail. Some coaching for students just getting started in online asynchronous discussions may be needed. This can be as simple as letting them know they are on the right track and directing them to repost their message in a designated thread so the class can stay on top of who is involved in the discussion and ensure that no one's contributions get lost in the shuffle. A document offered prior to the first discussion of student best practices for posting and participating in online asynchronous discussions will also be useful to both the student and the facilitator.
  • Use the Features

    Each asynchronous discussion environment has different features. By exploring the features and becoming familiar with them you can save yourself a lot of time. For example, If you want to know who has been participating and who hasn't, set your viewing options to sort by contributor and date. Or if you can't remember who made that thoughtful comment last week, do a keyword search.
  • Summarize and Send

    Asynchronous discussions can mean a lot of reading. Both the students and the facilitator can experience reading overload. As the facilitator you can help students by summarizing the key points raised and discussed in the classroom for each topic or week of the course. When you do so, invite them to add to the summary and ask students their reflections on how they will apply these key points to appropriate areas of their lives. Another strategy is to have the students work in groups, no larger than 5 students per group, to discuss the topic. The group than summarizes the groups discussion. This way if the class consists of 30 students you have 6 summaries to read rather than 30+ posts.
  • Keep an Eye on Everything

    It is best to let teams of students work on their own, but monitor discussion in those spaces for appropriate, professional behavior and redirect the conversation if interpersonal conflicts are going to arise. You may also want to direct them to the netiquette guidelines that hopefully you provided and reviewed with them at the beginning of the course.

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Synchronous Best Practices

  • Have an Agenda

    No matter how often you have presented on a topic, go into the synchronous classroom with a detailed agenda: so many minutes for introduction and "house keeping," an opening attention grabber, first key points, question solicitation, and on through the final sign-off. The agenda can keep you grounded, on topic and on track. You may feel that you will out grow the need of an agenda. Think of the agenda as a safety helmet that is worn each time you go on a bike ride -- the think that will keep your head in one piece if your bike should crash.
  • Break up the Presentation

    It's a challenge when instructing through a synchronous classroom to stay focused on the students rather than the content. There's plenty of material to cover (there's always more to cover than you really have time for), so there is a temptation to talk, talk, talk. Students can maybe only absorb a third of it all. When synchronous classrooms take on this character, they mimic the worst elements of the traditional classroom. Break up your presentations. Don't make your students listen to you 50 minutes straight. 

    Fifteen minutes is a good chunk of time to allot for each segment of your classroom session. When you create the lesson plan, break up your material into single-topic chunks that you can cover in these briefer periods of time. Between topics offer opportunities for students to discuss their reactions, present brief case studies and even engage in a game or poll the audience for feedback.

  • 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.
  • Keep to One Topic or Purpose at a Time

    Between getting started, breaking up presentation with activity and discussion, and responding to questions, you don't have much time to present material. When you include synchronous sessions in your course, plan them so that you can cover a single topic or purpose in a short period of time during each session.
  • Keep Your Cool

    Unlike asynchronous communication, where you have time to reflect on a response, synchronous communication begs for a more immediate response. If someone pushes your buttons or crosses the line of the respectful learning environment that you are creating you may want to consider a moment of silence before responding, or better yet, have an idea about how you might respond if something goes awry. This seldom happens, but in the interest of preparedness and keeping a respectful learning environment it is a good idea to think about what would be an uncomfortable discussion to have and how would you respond in this situation.
  • Summarize and Send

    Students benefit from a summary of key points from the session and an invitation for additional input. This can be done as part of the closing comments within the synchronous session, or following the session via an email, or posted in a discussion board.

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Forms of Dialog

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.

Social Dialogue

An example of social dialogue or simple chat is news like someone just signing papers on their first home or having a new grandchild. Chat certainly fosters an important sense of belonging and that is an essential step in establishing a learning community. But just like "talking in class," it's distracting when the focus is supposed to be elsewhere. Pointing discussion participants to a separate discussion area with the purpose of social networking can create a space to "hang out' with their peers. The example in the suggested reading is an area called "the water cooler area". A significant benefit of the trust initiated and supported by rich interactions in social forums is the potential spillover of willingness to engage in open communication in content assignments. Aol chat

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

An empty discussion area is a forbidding place...but comment I must. I just looked at the week 4 & 5 assignments, and my gut sank. Why? Well, first I need to tell you I haven't yet done the reading; I will in the next few days. Then I'll come back and probably revise this posting (if I haven't been run out of the group by instructors of colleagues). But in the last few months, thanks to another class and plethora of ill-conceived reform efforts in and around my school, I've been thinking and reading lots about change.

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.

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Argumentative Dialogue

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.

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Pragmatic Dialogue

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.

  1. There's a specific goal or task for the dialogue and a limited time frame for its accomplishment.
  2. Personal investment in ideas is relaxed in favor of group investment in achieving progress or forward movement of the dialogue. A person's most firmly held ideas are open for discussion.
  3. Given constraints of time and personal resources, many ideas cannot be pursued. Pragmatic dialogue is characterized by what can be called a "collective conceptual triage." Participants, actively facilitated by you the moderator, identify very attractive but potentially tangential or divergent ideas and concentrate instead on those that hold promise of yielding results that will add to achieving the goals of the collaboration.

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.

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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.

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Building Online Community: Key Roles for the Online Facilitator

Know Your Learners

Four students at a table with computers and studying.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

Life-Defining Events
Core Values
Expectations of Classroom
Korean War
Respect for authority
Adhere to rules
Clear hierarchy
Civil Rights
Women's Lib
Cold War
Manipulation of rules
"Live to work"
Discussion and creation of consensus
Generation X
Persian Gulf
Latchkey kids
"Work to live"
Unimpressed with nominal authority;
assign authority based on competence
Oklahoma City bombing
Columbine shootings
Multicultural terrorism
Civic Duty
Collective action
Will cut and paste to create customized experience;
technology is an enhancement to the process

(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)

1946 car Matures are those born before 1946. Matures grew up in a world where expectations and roles were clearly defined and values like thrift, hard work, and respect for authority were given. The importance of peer-to-peer connections may be challenging for Matures. This is a generation accustomed to well-defined hierarchies. The idea that they are co-creating the learning experience may be a strange one at first. Also, Matures may appreciate the use of larger fonts.

Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964; their childhood and adolescent years were characterized by confidence, prosperity, the rise of youth culture, and growing experimentation with alternative perspectives. As students, Boomers are often process oriented and committed to building consensus. They are highly team oriented and may be pleasantly surprised a the degree of interaction and kids of relationships they can develop in a distance-learning environment. Boomers look to their peers for approval and direction. A bit of positive peer pressure in the motivation department can be very effective in keeping them involved in a course.
Cadillac from 1946-1964

Bug from 1965-1980 Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, is the first generation to have grown up in a largely technological environment. As students, Gen Xers are cynical about authority, jealous of demands on their time, and committed to finding their own way through the material. Give them lots of options and help them feel you respect their individuality, creativity, and ideas.

Porsche from 1980-1994.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 [3].

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.

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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

  1. All members have a chance to express themselves and to influence the group's decisions.
  2. All contributions are listened to carefully, and strong points acknowledged.
  3. Everyone realizes that the job could not be done without the cooperation and contribution of everyone else.
  4. Differences are dealt with directly with the person or people involved.
  5. The group identifies all disagreements, hears everyone's views and tries to come to an agreement that makes sense to everyone.
  6. Even when a group decision is not liked by someone, that person will follow through on it with the group.
  7. The group encourages everyone to take responsibility, and hard work is recognized.
  8. When things are not going well, everyone makes an effort to help each other.
  9. There is a shared sense of pride and accomplishment.

Prepare for Effective Discussions

Group discussion among studenst and insturctor Facilitating good discussion in an art form all onto itself. However, it is one that can be learned. There are several things to consider when having discussions; things like, peer pressure, how to form your questions, time limitations, lack of interest, language barriers, and respecting diversity, to name just a few.

5 Suggestions for Equitable Online Facilitation

  1. Monitor the course to make sure that the equity content is accurate and comprehensive - The facilitator is the individual who must be aware of possible stereotypes and biases embedded in the course and who is able to examine and analyze these issues in light of what is being discussed in the course and the forum.
  2. Establish early an environment that enables participants to be safe and secure - This could come from the type of professional development or learning the group is participating in as well as the facilitator's style of engagement. The facilitator could provide the ground rules, including the right to ask questions and to respond in ways that are respectful of one anther. The facilitator could also take the discussion to a deeper level or move to the exploration of issues with equity implications.
  3. Intervene, as necessary, to keep the discussion on track - When participants become disrespectful to each other, demonstrate rude behavior (flaming), or post inaccurate information, the facilitator needs to intervene as quickly as possible. Modeling good and effective behavior that fosters equitable interaction is critical.
  4. Monitor the level of trust that exists - The facilitator is the agent who promotes the building of trust among participants. At the same time, the facilitator makes sure that any sensitive issue that becomes a point of discussion and exploration within the course ins appropriate for the level of trust within the group. When several of the participants post messages and no one dominates the discussion in any significant way, it is possible that participants trust one another to express what's on their minds.
  5. Note your own hesitancy about exploring any aspect of equity - The facilitator should ask him/herself what his/her personal biases or fears might be that my interfere with effective facilitation. These issues may result in the facilitator's avoidance of certain salient topics or discomfort when participants raise points related to those topics. In such an instance, the facilitator could raise his/her reservations to the group, making this a learning opportunity for everyone.

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 [7].

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Online Communication and Collaboration Technologies

Choose technologies that support your instructional values and learning outcome goals.

Types of Technologies

Example of a wiki page. Wikis - A wiki is a collaborative website which can be directly edited by anyone with access to it ( Wikis use a simplified language to allow collaborators to easily create and edit static web pages. Wikipedia, for example, is an online encyclopedia where individuals from around the world collaborate to create entries and keep them accurate. 7 Things You Should Know About Wikis

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

Social Networking - Social networking sites offer users a closed web page on which to post personal information like interests and "favorites," and frequently center on personal connections with "friends." Two popular sites are Facebook and MySpace, while Scholar and ELGG are more academically focused. Facebook page.

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 (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.

Yahoo logo MSN messenger logo AOL logo

Chat or Instant Messaging - Chat and instant messaging are synchronous technologies, meaning that conversation happens in real-time. Typically, conversation happens quickly and informally: short phrases and typos are the norm. Here at UW-Madison, our course management system Learn@UW offers instructors a chat space, but many use commercial programs offered by AOL, Yahoo, or MSN. 7 Things You Should Know About IM

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.

Web Course Management Systems - Course or content management systems offer easy ways to create a website to share information--largely without requiring users to know any html code. Many also have means to add a number of tools to a site, such as discussion boards and frequently asked question (FAQ) lists. Here at UW-Madison, our course management system is Learn@UW; demos of other content management systems can be found at OpenSourceCMS. Learn@UW page

(Collaborative Technologies, ACTWAN - Aligning Collaboration Tools With Academic Needs, 2007)

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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…

  • Do you want to be able to reuse content?
  • Do you need standards-compliant/conformant tools so you can track the e-learning through your LMS?
  • What system requirements do you have?
  • Do you do group development where desktop tools won’t cut it?
  • Oh yeah…and how much money do you have to spend?

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…[9]

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Evaluation of Student Online Communication and Collaboration

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.

Discussion Rubric 1

Discussion Rubric 2

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