Collaborative Tools in Online Learning Environments
Written by Alanna Carter, Instructional Designer (Learning and Creative Services)
Activities in online learning spaces can be both collaborative and engaging. Designing effective collaborative activities makes the learning experience more exciting, encourages deep thinking, and fosters community and connection. This article will (1) outline best practices for designing collaborative activities in online environments, (2) examine collaborative tool options with Brightspace, and (3) suggest external tools and platforms for collaboration.
DESIGNING COLLABORATIVE ACTIVITIES
Intention is important when designing collaborative activities in online learning environments. It is crucial to make sure the purpose of an activity is clear and to provide necessary support and teaching. The following sections outline a few considerations to keep in mind when incorporating collaboration into online course design.
Be Purposeful and Clear
Design collaborative activities with purpose. Learner ‘buy in’ will be much higher if the reason for collaboration is clear and relevant. Many learners have busy lives and limited time, and it is therefore necessary to make direct connections between activities and the larger learning objectives. Explicitly explain to learners how the collaborative activity will be beneficial to their learning, and make sure that the reason is valid!
Consider Group Size and Dynamics
Working in groups can be challenging at the best of times, so it is important to consider groupings and to be reasonable about expectations. It can be more difficult for learners to collaborate with others in online learning settings, particularly if synchronous interactions through video conferencing are required. Learners may have different schedules and priorities, and scheduling time for meetings and can become a burden. To account for this, keep groupings small so that learners can more easily connect and communicate.
Choose Accessible and User-Friendly Tools
Learners should be familiar with the tools or platforms required to complete activities. This will result in learners being able to use the tools more easily, produce higher quality work, and, ultimately, feel more satisfied with the learning process. Wherever possible, choose tools that are free, familiar, and intuitive. If the activity requires learners to use a new and unfamiliar tool, make sure that learners are given sufficient training and support.
As with any assignment, it is important to provide enough guidance for learners to produce high-quality work. This involves instructions that are clear and detailed. For example, information on the length, quality, and engagement levels of learners should be provided. Additionally, some collaborative activities might require learners to take on specific roles or jobs so that everyone in a learning group knows what they need to do. When all learners are clear on expectations, a more enjoyable and successful learning experience will follow.
BRIGHTSPACE TOOLS FOR COLLABORATION
This section provides an overview of some of the tools in Brightspace that facilitate and encourage collaborative learning.
When designed purposefully, discussions are an excellent tool for collaboration. Interaction with other students and with instructors enriches the learning experience and allows for the exchange of opinions, sharing of work, and cultivation of ideas. The Discussions Tool allows for learners to share both text and audio/video responses, which supports learners with different learning preferences. When setting up discussions, it is important to provide clear guidance around the expected length and intentions of posts. Requiring learners to respond to each other promotes a shared learning experience.
Activity Feed also allows for instructors to share content, ideas, and thoughts. Learners can add comments to the posts and engage in conversation with peers and instructors. The exchange of ideas and information through the Activity Feed means that learners can quickly and easily connect with others and collaborate on topics and assignments.
The Groups feature on Brightspace allows for learners to be divided into sections to collaborate, share within discussions, and work on group projects. Groups can be tied to assignment folders, discussion forums, and lockers for storing and sharing documents. The Groups feature on Brightspace is unique because groups share workspaces and see the same content, which makes the collaborative process smoother.
Bongo Video Assignments
Bongo is a partner tool that is integrated into Brightspace, allowing instructors to easily set up Virtual Classroom synchronous sessions or create Video Assignments. The premium version of Bongo provides instructors with the option to create group assignments and take advantage of features such as group synchronous meeting creation and chat, milestones that keep group members on track, and group member review to give learners an opportunity to provide feedback to their team members.
EXTERNAL TOOLS FOR COLLABORATION
In addition to Brightspace tools, a wide range of third-party tools and platforms are available online to facilitate collaboration in online learning environments. The following sections provide a description of a few particularly interesting tools.
Google Workspace is a collection of collaborative tools that have many applications in online learning environments. Google Docs and Google Slides are useful for collaborative writing and presentations, and they allow for learners to share, write, and work together. Learners can complete activities synchronously or asynchronously, which allows for significant flexibility. Learners can add, delete, or edit information quickly and easily. Google Calendar and Google Meet can also be used for learners to coordinate and connect with one another.
Padlet is a collaborative platform where learners can upload and share content. Learners can write posts on ‘sticky notes,’ record audio files, share photos, upload links, and more. Particularly useful for brainstorming activities, Padlet is a space where learners can express their thinking and ideas through various modalities.
Flipgrid is a platform for learners to easily create and share videos. Learners can respond to lessons and topics in interesting and creative ways through video creation. To encourage interaction and collaboration, learners can watch each other’s videos and leave text, audio, or video responses. The use of video fosters community among learners, which is important in online learning environments.
Nearpod is an interactive and motivating platform that encourages collaboration. Instructors design slides and activities which can be modified to include interactive elements. Nearpod can incorporate virtual reality, quizzes, polls, collaboration boards, and other activities. Importantly, Nearpod allows for learners to interact with content and demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways including through text, voice, and drawing activities. Instructors can monitor learners’ progress through lessons, which allows for tracking of completion of work and formative assessment.
Collaboration is an important aspect of any learning environment, including online learning environments. Collaborative learning allows for the exchange of ideas, fostering of community, and meaningful learning experiences. A plethora of tools are available both online and within the Brightspace platform to support and design collaborative and stimulating learning experiences. When done with care and intention, incorporating these tools into online lessons will have positive benefits for all learners.