Fostering Collaboration in the Online Classroom

Glenda Hernandez Baca, professor/coordinator of teacher education at Montgomery College, Takoma Park Campus, encourages the use of collaborative learning throughout online courses. In an interview with Online Classroom, she offered the following ideas for facilitating collaborative learning in group projects and in threaded discussions:

Make collaboration mandatory. “You have to make collaboration and participation mandatory in your courses. If it’s a choice, if you give students a choice of participating, I think you are telling them that collaboration is not that important,” Baca says. “If you can do something practical, students are going to be so much more engaged. It helps illustrate why it’s important.”

As for their concerns about finding the time to collaborate, Baca says that this is a challenge for everybody and is careful to not dismiss their concerns about the time it will take or the difficulty of coordinating the group’s efforts.

Provide advance notice that there will be collaborative assignments. Given students’ concerns about collaborative learning, it’s essential to let them know well in advance the extent and nature of what will be expected of them in the course. In addition to listing expectations in the syllabus (which she quizzes students on), Baca opens discussion forums between group members a month before a collaborative project begins, to get students comfortable interacting with each other.

Have students create a collaboration plan. There are different ways for students to work collaboratively, and what works for one group may not work for another. This is why it’s important to allow students to develop their own group processes. To that end, Baca has each group devise and submit to her a collaboration plan, delineating who will be responsible for which aspect of the project, how they will communicate, and when tasks will be accomplished.

In addition, she has them answer questions such as the following: What technology are you going to be using? What sources are you going to be researching? What is your backup plan if someone is not participating? Are you going to exchange phone numbers? What technology tools do you think will work best? How do you think this project will be best delivered to the rest of the class—as a Web page, wiki, or PowerPoint presentation? “They’re all open-ended questions to get them to think about [the collaboration process] because oftentimes they don’t think about those kinds of things until the very end,” Baca says.

Observe and monitor group participation. “For some of the discussions I’m very involved as far as posting and responding to students, and saying things like, ‘This is an interesting comment. Can you elaborate on this?’ Just being there helps move the discussion along. For other discussions, like for the open forums for them to work together on collaborative projects, it’s more of me checking in: ‘Can you give me an update as to what’s going on? Were you able to get together as planned?’ It’s just me pushing them along through the process,” Baca says.

For the graded discussion questions she responds to students via email on a rotating basis. “If I have 25 students and they have to post at least twice during the week—and most people don’t just post twice a week, they post a lot more than that—it just gets overwhelming to respond to every student. I want students to know that I’m reading their comments. I think that’s so important, and because I cannot always respond to every single student, that’s my way to make sure that every student at least three or four times during the semester is getting something from me. That tells them that although I may not respond to them every single week, I’m reading their posts and they are valuable to me and the other students. I’m so amazed at how many people say, ‘Thank you so much for the feedback. Oftentimes we have all these discussions and nobody ever says anything about it. Nobody ever responds.’

“I think that is why students feel like it’s a waste of time or they get annoyed at these discussions, because it’s more of a chore and nothing is done with it. There is no meaning. As instructors we don’t always make meaning of their participation. If you’re going to ask students to participate and collaborate and be engaged, you need to be responsive to that and let them know how that comes into the bigger picture of the class and their learning. I think that’s when they understand why we’re doing this and they’re much more open to doing it.”

Excerpted from Kelly, Rob “Fostering Collaboration in the Online Classroom.” Online Classroom, (September 2010): 3. Print.