During her 2012 Ted Talk entitled “Connected, but alone?” Sherry Turkle proclaimed, “technology is making a bid to redefine human connection.” Because we have learned to rely on technology to compensate for feelings of vulnerability, it has become increasingly common for humans to be satisfied with the false sense of connection provided by technology and less tolerant of the normal stresses of actual relationships. What implications does this have for digital instruction and online learning? Although many students (and even faculty) value the flexibility of being able to connect any time and any place, most also “report feelings of isolation when working online” (Palloff & Pratt, 2007, p. 158). Still, online students consistently complain about what they perceive to be unnecessary challenges associated with collaborative exercises. Faculty know that these types of soft skills are not only important, but also universally valued by employers, yet many choose to eliminate group work in online courses because the benefits don’t seem to outweigh the costs. With this in mind, here are some tips for better incorporating collaborative activities online (adapted from Palloff & Pratt, 2007):
Be specific about the rationale for the activity and clearly outline expectations for participation
- This step is often implied rather than made explicit. Sometimes simply reiterating that the purpose of college is to prepare students with the skills they will need to thrive in a career and soft skills consistently translate into improved marketability and success.
- Students don’t know what they don’t know. We assume that because students use technology for just about everything that they know HOW to use it for everything. In reality, they have never been taught to use it to improve critical thinking or cognitive complexity. Simply providing clear expectations for participation can bridge this disconnect.
Use real-life examples and/or activities that relate to real-life situations
- What types of scenarios will students likely face in their careers? Students will better connect with activities that clearly connect with skills they perceive they will need rather than activities that seem arbitrary. Again, sometimes this is just a matter of making the rationale for the tasks more transparent.
- Think outside the box! Consider creative ways to make group work fun such as game-based learning, case studies, or problem-based learning. Remember, you don’t have to sacrifice rigor for fun!
Encourage dialogue as inquiry
- Sometimes it’s hard for faculty to take a back seat during online discussions, especially when students don’t seem to be heading down the right path. That being said, students will never learn how to effectively engage in online interaction if they are never given the opportunity. Faculty can offer guiding questions to help students stay on track, but “it is important for the instructor to be able to facilitate this dialogue without dominating it, so as to allow for a ‘volley of views’ to emerge naturally (Palloff & Pratt, p 171).
Share responsibility for facilitation
- Take the opportunity to teach students the dynamics of facilitation! Too often they recognize when their group is falling behind, but they don’t know how to negotiate or meld the varying personality styles at the heart of the conflict. Breaking the facilitation process down into roles that rotate throughout the semester can not only help prevent problems within groups, but also give students experience practicing all of the roles they need to be a successful facilitator when they put them all together.
Promote thoughtful feedback
- This goes back to providing clear expectations for participation. You can say “don’t just say I agree or disagree”, but giving students examples of the type of content that actually demonstrates critical thinking better sets them up for success. Here are some examples:
- Expand on your classmate’s thoughts or opinions by explaining in detail why you agree with their claims.
- Provide a detailed example to add support to your classmate’s thoughts or opinions. This example can be personal (something you have experienced first-hand) or professional (something you have seen in a television show, podcast, video, book, newspaper article, journal, etc.).
- Challenge your classmate’s thoughts or opinions (i.e., play devil’s advocate) by explaining in detail why you disagree with their claims or by providing an example that contradicts their claims. Please note that challenging each other is a very important part of higher level thinking, however ALL posts should be communicated in a dignified and respectful manner.
Other things to consider
Ideally, collaborative learning activities are built into the initial design and development of an online course. They should be connected to specific student learning outcomes and/or goals. The following are questions to guide the implementation of collaborative learning (Palloff & Pratt, 2007, pp183-184):
- What is the content of this course? What aspects of the content lend themselves to collaborative group activities?
- What are the goals of the small-group activities?
- What size groups or teams should be formed in order to achieve those goals?
- How should groups or teams be formed? By the instructor? By the students? Dependent on interests? Dependent on strengths?
- Should the groups be homogeneous or heterogeneous?
- Will the participants remain in the same groups throughout the course, or will new groups be formed for each activity?
- How will activities be structured to ensure participation by all members of the group?
- Should roles be assigned to various group members?
- What rewards or motivations will be built into the process?
- How will accountability be built into the process?
- How will individual and group performance be evaluated? Who will evaluate this performance? The instructor? The participants themselves?
- Is there an expectation that students will provide feedback to each other on their work? How will this be built into the course?
Palloff, R.M. & Pratt, K. (2007). Building online learning communities. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Turkle, S. (2012). Connected, but alone? [Video file]. Retrieved from