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Communication and collaboration

As a teacher, how can I kickstart communication and collaboration in my course with the help of digital tools? Stefan Hrastinski (professor at the Digital Learning unit) gives his tips based on research on social learning. He also gives examples of methods and tools to use, such as peer feedback, breakout rooms and discussion forums.

Students learn more and are more satisfied in courses where they support and collaborate with each other (Swan, 2001). Different teaching methods and digital tools can be used to encourage social learning in different ways (Hrastinski, 2008).

Asynchronous communication

An advantage of, for example, discussion forums in Canvas is that the communication can take place at any place and time, which is usually called "asynchronous communication". Students can plan for themselves when they want to communicate with other students and teachers. They do not have to answer a question immediately instead they can think it through in their own time and without stress. Seminars can be scheduled for a longer period, for example a week, which enables reflection on a deeper level. In addition, all students can benefit from feedback provided by the teacher or other students.

One disadvantage is that it is easy to postpone contributing to the discussion and there is also a risk that students are not comfortable sharing texts (or audio and video files) that other students can take part in.

Synchronous communication

Synchronous communication is when everyone participates at the same time, such as scheduled teaching via Zoom. It can be useful for creating continuity and social context in distance learning.

An alternative to lecturing via video conference is to provide study materials to students in advance and use the time when you meet your students for problem solving and discussion. The study material can be short video lectures, texts or math problems. Preparations by working with teaching materials and exercises prior to scheduled teaching (so-called “Flipped Classroom”) usually lead to significantly improved study results (van Alten et al., 2019).

Digital collaboration between students

It can be challenging to start up a committed digital collaboration between students. A common way is to demand that students contribute, for example by specifying that students are expected to write a certain number of posts and answers of good quality. Others believe that activity should be based on students' needs and interests, rather than being mandatory.

In many cases it is a combination, to set certain requirements, but at the same time encourage students to engage in discussions that go beyond what is required for a passing grade.

A new teaching role

There is a risk that teachers who quickly answer students' questions make students less active (Mazzolini & Maddison, 2003). The discussion often falls silent after the teacher has communicated their understanding. A success factor is that as a teacher strive to be more of a supervisor who encourages engaging discussions and collaboration between students.

Three examples of digital tools for communication and collaboration

1. Discussion forum

Discussion forums are particularly suitable for discussing questions that can be answered in different ways. It is common to work with open-ended questions, where different students can approach differently. One example is to give students the task of summarizing scientific articles in a specific area, which means that students can find support to get an overview of the latest research.

It may also be a good idea to ask students to ask questions, those also relevant to other students, in a common discussion forum, rather than sending an e-mail to you as a teacher. Then all students can benefit from your answers and you do not have to answer the same question many times. You can also encourage students to answer each other's questions.

2. Video conference

Many teachers use video conferencing to lecture with PowerPoint images. Video conferencing can, however, be used to advantage to support communication and collaboration between students, for example in distance education.

As a teacher, you can ask your students to take part in a teaching material (for example text, short videos and exercises) and then spend the time when you meet via video conference to discuss problems or issues that the students find particularly challenging.

It is also possible for students to discuss in small groups (so-called "breakout rooms"). Feel free to encourage students to use video conferencing in study groups so that they can support each other when they are not on campus.

3. Peer feedback

Peer feedback means that students give each other feedback on assignments. Students' learning benefits from students receiving feedback, but they also learn by giving feedback to other students (Liu & Carless, 2009).

Functionality for peer feedback is available in Canvas, called "peer review", and facilitates coordination, for example to automatically distribute assignments between students. An important success factor is to give students clear instructions, it is difficult to give good feedback.