Discussion and Collaboration

Week Six Activities (due March 20):

This week we explore some material on discussion and collaboration and then use two tools–both of which are new to OLE–that can facilitate such activities.

  1. Use Hypothes.is to annotate an article.
  2. Use Voicethread to add your thoughts to the discussion.
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Collaboration comes in many forms.

We’ve already introduced some ideas and tools that can encourage discussion, collaboration, and the social dimension of learning:

  • Video chats enable face-to-face interactions.
  • Twitter and other social media platforms help build a sense of community and help people share resources.
  • Blogging and commenting on blogs can be an avenue for interactions.
  • A traditional discussion forum can be used for quick questions or more sustained discussion.

Here, we consider some aspects of discussion and collaboration in a little more depth.

Discussion: Synchronous and Asynchronous

In the face-to-face classroom, everyone is in the same place at the same time, enabling synchronous discussion. When those discussions go well, they can be extraordinarily rewarding for everyone involved. Online discussions rarely have the spontaneous energy that can emerge from a great face-to-face classroom discussion. That can be disappointing for instructors and students looking for online classes to simply replicate a face-to-face class.

However, we shouldn’t romanticize the classroom discussion experience. We often remember them so fondly precisely because they are difficult to achieve and are relatively rare. And they typically involve a minority–sometimes a tiny minority–of students, leaving the majority as mere spectators. So, as we have been emphasizing, teaching online is different; trying to simply transfer what you do in a face-to-face class to an online course is unlikely to work well, discussions included.  In an online course, you no doubt lose some things that can be done face to face. But, in an online course, you also have unique possibilities available only on the Internet.

Synchronous Online. You can conduct synchronous online discussions using either video or text-based tools. The challenge is that students must “attend” at the same time. Often, this undermines one of the most appealing aspects of online courses: their asynchronous flexibility. Still, there are times you might want to try a synchronous online discussion.

As we’ve seen, there are a variety of tools to do this with video chats, including Zoom, appear.in, and Google Hangout.  You can also try synchronous text-based chat platforms.  For example:

  1. Twitter chat involves getting students to “meet” at an agreed-upon time, using a common hashtag.  You can create your own or join one of the many existing twitter chats.
  2. Chat Rooms are available via several services, including NeatChat.
  3. And remember, Google Doc enables you to chat and edit simultaneously.
  4. Piazza is a robust “Q&A Platform” that can also be used as a discussion board. Among its many features is a LaTeX editor that makes it math-friendly.
  5. Slack is an increasingly popular message board that some people have begun to use in courses.

Asynchronous Online. While online synchronous discussions are possible, online courses are typically an asynchronous experience, where interactions are staggered and intermittent.  As noted, that means you won’t have the vibrant energy of a “live” discussion but there are actually some advantages to asynchronous online discussions that can make them more inclusive, deliberate, and thoughtful.  For example:

  • Students who need a little more time to develop their ideas or who are a little more introverted and uncomfortable with jumping in quickly have more time and space to craft their response and share their ideas.
  • Comments can be reread and assessed before responding, which may result in a more thoughtful discussion. (Look at how commenting inspires revision in this history course).
  • Students can link to comments or related resources in their responses to support or elaborate upon their point.
  • A student’s social identity–their sex, age, race, and the like–may play less of a role, enabling their thoughts to be considered on their own merit without the filters of unconscious bias.
  • Unlike the live classroom where the clock limits interaction, bandwidth is unlimited so no one need be left out of the discussion and a good discussion need never end.

One review of synchronous and asynchronous learning online includes the following summary advice:


As you consider how you’re going to encourage discussion keep these sorts of issues in mind.

Forums and Blogs

The two most common platforms for discussion are forums and blogs. There’s been a little research (here and here) on the pros and cons of each and you can find simple nuts-and-bolts advice on using each that are well worth considering.

Traditional Discussion Forums.  These typically have “threads” in which respondents post comments and responses to a particular topic or prompt.  (Our simple “Discussion-Q&A Forum”in the menu above is an example.) The key is to create prompts that are broad enough to encourage genuine engagement and that don’t ask questions that can be answered simply (and repetitively). More tips for question questions and encouraging discussion in this environment are below:

The quality of your question or prompt–as well as your active involvement in the discussion–is absolutely crucial to the success or failure of the discussion.

Blog Comments.  While blog posts are often in response to instructor prompts, blog comments are a different animal.  In comments, students are typically responding to posts written by other students, not prompts created by the instructor. Here, the key is likely to be teaching students how to write valuable comments (not just “I liked your post”).  Here are some tips on that:

There are plenty of exceptions but, painting with a broad brush….

Threaded Discussion Forums Blog Posts/Comments
–located at a single site –dispersed across student sites
–prompt is by instructor –student post is “prompt” for comments
–instructor prompt is focus; student responses have “equal weight” in the interaction –original student post is focus; comments tend to gravitate around that
–can be private or public –typically public, though individual posts can be made password protected
–can be more formal and “academic” –often more informal and personalized
–tends to be text-focused –usually easier to customize with various media
–tend to be best for:

  • more traditional academic queries prompted and controlled by the instructor
  • topics requiring privacy and “safe” spaces
–tend to be best for:

  • community building
  • developing a sense of student “ownership” of material

While blogs and forums are the best known, there are other ways and places to hold discussions.  The internet enables you to connect to the many online communities where ongoing discussions are already taking place.

  • Reddit is a giant discussion forum with communities of thousands devoted to things like public speakingpsychopathy, and just about any topic you can imagine.  There’s a discussion group for VCU with 2000+ readers,  nursing (27,000+), art (5 million+), business (190,000+), adult education (1300+) etc. Might your students join in to learn from others outside the class?  (Be aware that some Reddit forums are vulgar and offensive, much like the “real” world.)
  • Broader communities like Change My View or Explain It Like I’m Five provide interesting avenues and audiences for writing.
  • Even Wikipedia articles offer the chance to tap into a community passionate about a topic using the talk pages or engage in something deeper like the Univ. of British Columbia did here.
  • The Flickr photo-saving/sharing site also has comments.  Might your students find images with comments relevant to your course and join in the discussion?


Group Work and Collaboration Online

One of the most important things students can learn is how to work with others collaboratively.  Nearly all workplaces involve some sort of collaborative work and some surveys have found that being able to work effectively in a team is the single most important skill employers look for when hiring.  Most instructors recognize this important skill set and use some form of group work in their teaching.

But group work is fraught with challenges in any context.  Most of the challenges in online group work are the same as with face-to-face groups:

  • establishing ground rules for how the group will work
  • anticipating and counteracting any “free rider” problems
  • establishing channels of communication
  • figuring out how the group project will be created

Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to address these challenges and plenty of tools for group work work available online.  For example:

  1. Have students create a group “contract” as a first exercise.  You can show them examples for ideas and ask that they use Google Docs to create their own agreement, relevant to the particulars of your course.  This helps them work out the logistics of how they will communicate, has them create a collaborative document, and is a nice ice-breaking activity.
  2. Incorporate some self- and peer-assessment elements into the project.  If students know ahead of time this will be required, it can help avoid the free-rider issue.  Search for a peer assessment rubric you like or explore fledgling free online peer-evaluation tools such as Teammates.
  3. Introduce student to collaborative tools early so they have some low-risk practice with them before having to produce a project.
  4. Let students find the best mode of communication.  It is likely that your students already communicate often online, so take advantage of this by allowing them to make choices about what works best for them.  Some may want to video chat, others may prefer group instant-messaging with apps like GroupMe. still others may rely on traditional e-mail.  If it works for them and gets the job done, these and many other routes are usually fine.
  5. Be sure to explain to students why you are requiring group work.  It turns out they often don’t know.  One approach is to point out how employers value the ability to work in teams.  Google, for example, famously advises that they look for “team players” and that “People need to work well together and perform up to the team’s expectations.”  That’s not just true for the corporate sector.

The bottom line is that, with a little preparation, group work and collaboration can be a valuable part of an online course.

Activity #1:  Annotate an article

Many of us have books on our shelves with pages that have scribbled notes, starred sections, and underlined passages.  Those notations reflect our engagement with the author’s ideas and they can help us quickly find key passages.  Today’s digital texts allow us to do this even more easily through digital annotation.  Social annotation adds yet another dimension to this age-old practice: sharing our notes with others, while learning from theirs.  (Here’s how the New York Times explained it to their Learning Network.)  There are a number of social annotation tools, including Diigo, which you’ve already used for social bookmarking.  The Times piece highlights Genius, another option.  For this activity, we’ll use something called Hypothes.is.

Hypothes.is is a free tool that allows you to stimulate discussion and collaboration by annotating the web.


Using the Chrome browser, go to Hypothes.is, click install, and follow the directions.  (For more detailed instructions, check out how Jon Becker introduces this tool to his students.)

When you have things set up, share your thoughts on this article by annotating it.  Can you follow what they’re discussing?  Is this something that seems potentially relevant for your course?  Why or why not?  Add your comments. When you add a comment, add “vcuole” (no quotation marks) in the tag box (just below the comment field) to help us find our work.

Activity #2: Add your comments and experiment with VoiceThread

Beginning in May, VCU’s Blackboard LMS will be switching from its Collaborate tools to something called VoiceThread.  But you don’t need to use VoiceThread within Blackboard, so we’ll experiment with it in this activity.

VoiceThread is a multimedia presentation tool that allows viewers to interact with each section or slide of the presentation. VoiceThread “slides” can be traditional slides, like in a PowerPoint presentation, or other media files like videos, audio, images, or documents. Viewers can leave comments on each slide in audio, video, or text formats. The structure of VoiceThread allows granular discussions. For example, students can comment on the exact page of an article or image in a photoset.

The best way to get a feel for this is simply to use it.

  1. Go to this VoiceThread OLE group site and, when prompted, register for a free account, sign in, and join the OLE group. (Your confirmation should arrive very quickly; if you don’t see it, check your spam folder.)
  2. From the OLE group page, you can view a much more detailed VoiceThread in Depth Overview.  (Remember you can navigate using the arrows.  Click the X in the upper right to get you back to the OLE group page.)
  3. Open the Voicethread labelled “Discussion and Collaboration”  (You can see the various slides in this VoiceThread by clicking the little slides icon VT slides.) Add some comments by clicking the “+ comment” button comment voicethread in an individual slide.
  4. Experiment creating some content by using the Sandbox VoiceThread (see the Sandbox instructions).  Maybe you can add some content

Don’t worry about substance just now.  The main point is to get a feel for how this platform works and to see how the web offers some interesting possibilities.