How to collaborate effectively in an online course
Social learning is effective learning
If you’re motivated by social interaction at school, and enjoy group projects, there are ways to make your online course more engaging. You don’t have to go it alone if you don’t want to. In fact, online course collaboration tools are even more advanced than they were a few years ago, allowing for more interaction between students and instructors.
At Academy Xi, students who are part of intake-based courses (starting the course at the same time) have fortnightly live session videos where they can interact with one another and with the instructor. These courses include project work or practical activities, supported by collaboration tools like Slack and Miro. Students can work in pairs or in groups to study and complete projects together.
In this article we’ll cover some of the ways you can collaborate in online courses—many of which, surprisingly, allow for even more engagement than IRL—and provide a resource list of tools to consider in your online learning journey. The hardest part is knowing which tools are available, and which ones will facilitate greater engagement between you and your peers. That’s why we’ve carefully curated the information you need to know and presented it for you in one place.
How do students collaborate online?
First off, let’s take a look at some of the latest research on collaborative online learning. You may be surprised to find that the methods you’ve used in the past can be improved with some simple changes, or that you’ve been on the right track all along. Research on online course collaboration is a burgeoning new field, and there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting it is essential to online learning in general.
Even if you think you work better alone, you may want to reconsider your view in light of the latest findings. Research suggests it’s not always better on your own. The bottom line is this: social learning is effective learning.
Community-building takes time
A 2016 study from the University of Southern Queensland found that students in an online language learning course benefited from the social aspect of collaboration, but that it took time to develop:
“The main points to emerge from the study were the importance of the social aspect of collaboration, of allowing time for collaboration to develop, and the effect of the gradual development of confidence among the students,” the authors wrote. “Patterns of collaboration changed as the group developed a sense of community and mutual trust, with students who initially held back from offering their work for comment gradually posting their work early to encourage feedback from others.”
The take-away point may be that even if it takes a bit longer to build community in an online setting, the ultimate effect is one of equal if not higher engagement. That may be important to keep in mind as your course progresses.
Shiny new tech doesn’t impress
Researchers at Anadolu University in Turkey found that students “generally use educational technology in a narrow way, rarely engaging with technological tools, unless it is presented to them as integral to their learning or if they are already familiar with a particular tool and/or perceive it as useful.”
They add: “Despite a well-cited characteristic by proponents of ‘digital natives’ that students need constant entertainment, this study found no evidence that this was the case.”
Perhaps it’s the case that social media and other forms of social technology are appealing mainly because of the social aspect.
If you need a motivation boost, be a “connector”
Students who aren’t already highly motivated to take an online course might benefit most from the social aspect of online course collaboration, according to researchers at the University of Helsinki.
“Experiences of intrinsic motivation were found to be weakly negatively related to both centrality and betweenness centrality in the social network,” they write. “This means that students who reported intrinsic motivation were less likely to be central figures in the learning community and also less likely to be a person connecting subgroups within that community.”
In other words, if you find your motivation lagging during the course, try becoming a “connector” to bring your enthusiasm levels back up. You don’t have to be a group facilitator so much as a sub-group facilitator, according to the study:
“The social structure that emerged from the social interactions was very clustered, indicating that sub-groups emerged during the course. Overall, the network was not very dense, indicating that students did not interact with a wide range of other students but stuck to interacting with few of the other students.”
Students interacted with the other students by sharing materials, chatting, commenting, and asking questions. “There was a very high degree of variation in how much students participated in the social interaction. Some sent nearly 500 messages, whereas some didn’t send any.”
Being a good connector can become a fun challenge, then, working with different personalities and communication styles to achieve the most group harmony.
Online social forums improve grades
At the University of Indiana, physics department chair and associate professor Andy Gavrin says online social forums are effective collaboration tools because they create a social learning environment.
Gavrin and his colleagues found that when there was more activity in the online forums for his physics and engineering classes, the students who were most central in the network were “more likely to achieve a higher final course grade.”
Analysing data from three consecutive fall semester courses, Gavrin and his colleagues discovered a “clear correlation between students’ centrality in the network and their success in class.” They used Google’s PageRank to determine what data was most central to the network, and a tool called “target entropy” to measure the variety in links among individuals. Gavrin explains it this way:
“If a person interacts with a lot of other people in a social network, it indicates they are likely central. If the people they interact with are central themselves, that reflects back on the first person.”
Participation in the forum, which was designed to be like a social network, was not graded but students could earn extra credit. Nearly 200 students were enrolled in the class each semester, producing thousands of forum comments, responses to comments, polls, and response ratings.
Students who were more central to the network achieved higher grades at the end of the semester.
“This project is about how students interact with one another,” Gavrin said. “Learning is very much a social activity, and you see that with students getting together to study and in classroom discussions. The more opportunities students have to interact with one another to talk about the subject, the more successful they are likely to be in learning.”
Team video gaming builds community
A new study by four BYU information systems professors found newly-formed work teams experienced a 20% increase in productivity on subsequent tasks after playing video games together for just 45 minutes. The study, published in AIS Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction, adds to a growing body of literature finding positive outcomes of team video gaming.
“To see that big of a jump — especially for the amount of time they played — was a little shocking,” said co-author and BYU associate professor Greg Anderson. “Companies are spending thousands and thousands of dollars on team-building activities, and I’m thinking, go buy an Xbox.”
For the study, researchers recruited 352 individuals and randomly organised them into 80 teams, making sure no participants with pre-existing relationships were on the same team. For their initial experimental task, each team played in a geocaching competition called Findamine, an exercise created by previous IS researchers which gives players short, text-based clues to find landmarks. Participants were incentivised with cash rewards for winning the competition.
Following their first round of Findamine, teams were randomly assigned to one of three conditions before being sent out to geocache again: 1) team video gaming, 2) quiet homework time or 3) a “goal training” discussion on improving their geocaching results. Each of these conditions lasted 45 minutes and those in the video gaming treatment chose to play either Rock Band or Halo 4 — games selected because they are both familiar and require coordinated efforts among players.
The researchers found that while the goal-training teams reported a higher increase in team cohesion than the video-gaming teams, the video gamers increased actual performance on their second round of Findamine significantly, raising average scores from 435 to 520.
“Team video gaming may truly be a viable — and perhaps even optimal — alternative for team building,” said lead researcher Mark Keith, associate professor of information systems at BYU.
Researchers also said it doesn’t matter if people are avid video gamers to see the positive effects of gaming together; they observed video game novices established communications norms — and built working relationships — even quicker with new teammates so as to learn the nuances of the game.
There is one caveat to the finding, however: the study was done with teams of individuals who don’t know each other. Researchers admit if team members are already familiar with each other, then competitive video gaming may possibly reinforce biases and negative relationships developed from previous experiences.
Participation is learning
At the Centre for Education Studies at the University of Warwick, Michael Hammond studies the history of online collaboration and cooperation, focusing especially on the importance of social learning.
There are two useful metaphors for learning in the context of the mathematics classroom, he says, drawing on research from the late 90s.
“The first of these was learning by acquisition, in which the process of acquiring knowledge was an individual achievement. The second was the participation metaphor or learning through participation in a group. Here knowledge (a noun) is replaced with knowing (a gerund) to indicate action and to draw attention to the ‘situatedness, contextuality, cultural embeddedness’ in which learning takes place. It is this second metaphor which many supporters of OC have alighted upon and, as put by Hrastinski (2009), ‘online participation drives online learning’.”
In other words, Hammond says, “participation is not an aid to learning or a scaffold for learning but is learning in its own right.”
That’s why collaboration is so crucial to learning.
“It is through effort of explaining and defending positions, exploring differences and reaching agreement, that new knowledge is created. For some, technology not only supports participation but provides participants with past archives which enable and represent knowledge sharing.”
Intermittent collaboration is best
Studying the frequency of online course collaboration, researchers at Northeastern University and the Questrom School of Business at Boston University found that intermittent collaboration is more effective for online students than constant collaboration or no collaboration at all.
For the study, several three-person groups performed a complex problem-solving task. The members of one group never interacted with each other, solving the task on their own; the members of another group interacted constantly, with their technology “always on”; and the third group interacted only intermittently.
The group whose members interacted intermittently performed the best.
“Even though the groups interacted only intermittently, they had an average quality of solution that was nearly identical to those groups that interacted constantly,” the researchers wrote. “And yet, by interacting only intermittently, these groups also preserved enough variation to find some of the best solutions, too.”
What’s more, the high performers in each group learned from the low performers—but only in the intermittent condition.
“When high performers interacted with low performers constantly, there was little to learn from them, because low performers mostly just copied high performers’ solutions, and high performers likely ignored them. But when high performers interacted with low performers only intermittently, they were able to learn something from them that helped them achieve even greater solutions to the problem.”
The researchers fear that technology is threatening to break these cycles of doing work alone and then coming together, encouraging constant interaction, and we should take a step back and consider our methods more carefully.
“As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well,” they warn.
As you collaborate in your online course, aim for a balance of isolated work and group work for optimal learning.
Online course collaboration tools
Now that we know why we should collaborate in our online courses, we can explore how. There are countless collaboration tools meant for boosting engagement and making group projects easier to complete, so we’ve curated a few of the best for you. You don’t have to be intimidated by the thought of learning a new tool, as most collaboration platforms now provide users with educational videos and step-by-step guides to get you up and running in no time.
Slack is a messaging application for teams and classes.
At North Dakota State University, teacher Melissa Vosen Callens uses Slack in her teaching to help students collaborate more effectively.
“I used the discussion board feature on our learning management system, Blackboard,” she writes. “In 2016, I switched to Slack because it is user-friendly from both an instructor and student standpoint. One of the best features of Slack is an app that notifies users when someone responds to, or tags them in, a post.”
Callens explains how research suggests that a primary component of effective online teaching is “creating an environment where students do not feel isolated and can interact with their instructor and other students, supporting the belief that learning is a social process.”
“Because interaction is important, I ask students to engage in a weekly online discussion using Slack… Not only does Slack help students feel connected to a learning community, but it also helps them meet my course outcomes.”
For her course, she creates a channel for each week. Each channel has a prompt that encourages students to reflect on our weekly assigned course texts.
In addition to setting up the team page and channels, Callens also records a short video which walks students through the process of setting up an account. “The process is not difficult, but by creating a video with concrete, step-by-step instructions, fewer students have questions about the account creation process.”
Miro is a collaboration platform for professional teams and classes. It is designed especially for teams working in product development, UX research and design, and learn and agile methodologies. “Whether your teams are colocated, distributed, or fully remote, Miro provides an engaging, intuitive, in-person collaboration experience with multiple options for real-time or asynchronous teamwork on an online whiteboard.”
Miro for Education comes with a whiteboard toolkit, unlimited numbers of boards, screen sharing, Google Drive integration, board export, and presentation mode. The free education account can host up to 30 participants.
Tim Jefferis, teacher at British boarding school, uses Miro for his geography and religious studies classes. He shares his story on the Miro blog:
“The best type of collaboration I find works with small classes (of 3 or less). With larger sets using Miro to its full effect can become a bit chaotic unless very carefully managed. It is for this reason that I’ve found that it’s in my religious studies teaching (where I tech just one pupil!) where I’ve really been able to adopt the dream workflow. Before the lesson I set the board up with some skeleton resources, perhaps a YouTube clip, an article or a table in a Google Doc that we’ll fill in together. My pupil then arrives, logs on (I sometimes lend him my Chromebook to speed things up yet further) and off we go. Sitting opposite each other we work in a genuinely collaborative way.”
Asana is a collaboration platform that can be used to plan projects, coordinate work, communicate effectively, align on shared goals, manage changes, and improve cross-functional collaboration.
“Good collaboration software helps eliminate communication and information silos by organizing your work in one place. Everyone knows who’s doing what. Teammates can easily discuss work and share ideas. You deliver projects on time.”
In 2018, Asana launched the Asana Academy, a learning platform on on-demand courses that provides step-by-step instructions on how to use Asana. You can follow along with video lessons and take quizzes to check that you’re doing it right—all for free.
One of Asana’s best collaboration tools is the Brainstorm Board, which can be used for group projects. After creating a board, you can allow anyone to contribute ideas by adding them as a project member; keep your ideas organised; see your team’s favourite ideas by liking tasks; use Asana mobile to upload paper notes into Asana; keep ideas actionable by assigning them out; and gather inspiration and ideas across the web with the Chrome Extension.
Collaboration should be an essential part of your online course. Don’t be deterred by the thought of going it alone; you don’t have to. If your instructor doesn’t provide enough of a collaborative component, feel free to request another tool or strategy that you think will work better for you and your classmates.
Even if you think you’re a solo learner, keep in mind that we are social creatures and our brains are wired to store information related to the people around us. For this reason, making learning more collaborative is a smart study tactic in addition to a practice in teamwork. The more social and personal you can make your learning, the better it will stick in your mind and the higher the chance you’ll remember it not only on test day but in the long run.
Keep some of these strategies in mind as you start your new course or when you need a pick-me-up midway through. Interdependence is how you build community, and community is how you get the support you need to work through tough challenges on your educational journey. If you need help, ask for it. If you can help a peer, offer it. Best of all, the collaboration techniques you practise now will help you on your professional journey as well. No collaboration is wasted collaboration.
Learn more about our highly-supported, intake-based online courses here.
Author: Saga Briggs. Saga Briggs is a journalist covering trends in learning, creativity, intelligence, and educational technology. Follow her @SagaMilena