Learning to Have Collaborative Online Discussions

Collaborative Online Discussions with sentence stems

When we think about students learning how to use new technologies to have collaborative online discussions, I strongly believe the key word still needs to be learning—and I don’t just mean learning the technical details of one videoconferencing tool or another.

Even before educators had to do the great pivot, we were already helping students learn to share ideas and interact with one another. Students rarely come to us already knowing how to have effective collaborative discussions. Perhaps you too had an anchor chart with sentence stems like the one above. Maybe you set a goal for each discussion group, or had mini-lessons at the beginning of discussion, or engaged students in metacognitive reflection afterward. All of those are still great ideas you can definitely transfer to a remote or blended environment.

Collaborative Online Discussions in Group Activities

According to Robyn Benson and Charlotte Brack’s book Online Learning and Assessment in Higher Education, “If you are using online discussion specifically to support the idea of students’ learning through collaboration in groups, the concept of a community of inquiry may be helpful in guiding your design. In this context a community of learners forms ‘an essential, core element of an educational experience where higher-order learning is the desired outcome’ (Garrison & Anderson, 2003, p. 22).”

Of course, setting goals and making plans to help students of any age get better starts with an assessment of where you are now with regard to having collaborative online discussions. If many of your students don’t have reliable access to the internet, your plans will be different from those of a teacher who is having one or more synchronous classes per week where most students attend and the discussion circle has become a grid of small selfies. Combining your knowledge of students’ previous strengths and needs with your current assessment can help you to make realistic plans for next steps.

Starting to Share Ideas and Learn from Others

Whether you’re asking students to respond to your prompts on paper or online, they may need help getting started in sharing their ideas. If you did have anchor charts in the classroom, your students probably need a personal version now. If they’re staring off into space and have clammed up when you ask questions in a video conference or if everyone just says, “I agree,” perhaps sentence starters would help.

These Shared Inquiry learning supports include basic and advanced “talk moves” for both younger and older students. Look them over and select the ones that fit your students’ needs. Another go-to tip to improve the quality of responses is to have students write the question you’re about to discuss, then write an individual answer before they begin talking. Be sure to encourage everyone to include evidence so they will be ready to support their ideas!