Online Collaboration & Discussions in an Online Paced Course


If you are writing a cohort-based course (online paced) building collaboration into your curriculum is not only possible, but encouraged. Please take a few minutes to explore what journals, bogs, wikis and discussions can do for your course and your students' learning.


If on the other hand you are in the process of writing a standard web course (30 weeks, continuous enrollment, no cohort), opportunities for student collaboration are more limited. Please refer to the next tab, Inspiration 4 - Learning Activities in Standard Web.

Collaboration in academia: Ambiguity abounds

Students often find collaboration challenging. Issues around equal contribution and evaluation can arise, causing hard feelings by seemingly pitting overachievers against freeloaders.

Collaboration is a fact of life in the world outside of academia. It can easily be argued that anything of significance is created in teams. However, in universities, a system built on tough competition, collaboration is often perceived as an odious imposition.

This five minute video illustrates how collaboration can be facilitated so that learning is more effective, transparent and fair to all: http://online.cofa.unsw.edu.au/learning-to-teach-online/ltto-episodes?view=video&video=267.


4 Tools - 4 Levels of collaboration
The four most commonly used collaboration tools in an online environment are:
  1. Journals,
  2. Blogs,
  3. Wikis and
  4. Discussions.

Blackboard Learn has all four tools conveniently built-in. Of course, if you prefer to use certain external resources, that is possible. But if you like convenient, centralized, intuitive sophistication then our learning management system will likely meet all your instructional needs.

Another argument in favor of using the tools already integrated into Blackboard Learn is that most of the external e-tools are hosted on servers outside of Canada and thus all information submitted (e.g. name, email address, even files created) fall under the host country's scrutiny and jurisdiction (if the server is hosted in the US, the Homeland Security Act comes into effect). That can compromise a student's privacy. Therefore, if you choose to recommend that learners use an external program, we will integrate the following paragraph into the course:

“Warning: Please note that this is not an Open Learning or TRU program. You may be asked to provide personal information such as a name and email address. Risks may apply. Please read the site’s terms of use and make sure you are okay with them. If you are not comfortable with these terms, please contact your Open Learning Faculty Member to discuss alternative ways of completing and submitting your assignment.”


1. Journals: Online, two-way self-reflection

The highest level of privacy-while still collaborating online-is provided by Blackboard's journal feature. Journals offer a quiet space for critical reflection. This special thinking space is only shared with the instructor who can leave comments and assign grades. This tool is ideal for non-cohort based courses (e.g. standard web) since it does not require peer-to-peer interaction.

The attached document is often given to students whose course includes a reflection journal. It outlines the opportunities and expectations and lists a rubric for evaluating learners' contributions.




2. Blogs: An online scrapbook

In a nutshell, a blog is like an online journal or portfolio that allows students to post their work as they progress through the course. Instructors and peers are usually encouraged to read each other’s posts and leave comments. Each student has his or her own blog that can be populated with text, video, audio, pictures, URLs, and so forth.

The collaborative aspect of blogs is limited to readers leaving feedback at the bottom of the page.

The University of New South Wales in Australia produced many outstanding videos on how to effectively use online tools to facilitate distance learning in higher eduction. The following video is a case study of how blogging was used successfully in an online/distance university course: http://online.cofa.unsw.edu.au/learning-to-teach-online/ltto-episodes?view=video&video=173.

To be honest with you, I am not a great fan of the blog that comes built into Blackboard Learn. A more viable blogging platform is WordPress (http://wordpress.com/). TRU has its own WordPress account that we can use by request.

Russell Stannard developed a number of excellent intro videos to Wordpress. Start your training here.


3. Wikis: Quick & easy co-authoring

A wiki (Hawaiian, meaning quick) is like a high-tech chalkboard around which members of a team gather and collaboratively create an assignment using typical e-tools like word processing, pictures, audio and video. The most famous wiki, of course, is Wikipedia.And yes, this very document was create in a wiki.

This three minute video is a good illustration of what a wiki is: http://www.commoncraft.com/video/wikis.

Students are frequently amazed at how much they enjoy and get out of working in a wiki. Professors equally gain big benefits because they can actually see who contributed what content, which then can inform their evaluation.

Thus, when you ask your students to co-author a research piece, the most appropriate place to send them to is the Blackboard Learn wiki. Creating in a wiki is much more effective, efficient and fun than tediously sending drafts forth and back by email. Wikis allow students to collaborate in new ways that often allow for more depth and accountability.

This short video is a case study of how wikis were used at the University of New South Wales: http://online.cofa.unsw.edu.au/learning-to-teach-online/ltto-episodes?view=video&video=245.


4. Discussions: Creating juicy conversations

I encourage you to build asynchronous online discussions into your course. The written discussion format gives introverts or students whose first language is not English the opportunity to reflect on and carefully craft their posts. Therefore, with the skillful moderation of an Open Learning Faculty Member, online discussions often boast vigorous, high quality interactions.

Here are some tips on how to design effective online discussions:

  1. Select your discussion topics carefully. Adult learners are motivated when they are invited to bring in their own life experiences and reflect on them in the context of what they learn.

  2. Select an appropriate number of discussions; enough to keep students engaged, yet not enough for them burn out. We recommend no more than one discussion per week.

  3. Remember, online discussions hosted in Blackboard Learn can be timed as to when they begin and when they close. This way, discussions can have crisp and clear bookends. Take advantage of these features.

  4. You may want to request that some discussion posts are limited to 200-250 words only. Focused and succinct is often preferable. This keeps rants at bay and the amount of reading reasonable for both peers and instructors.

In the following short video, learn from fellow professors how they use online discussions in their courses, and hear what students have to say about what makes an online discussion juicy: http://online.cofa.unsw.edu.au/learning-to-teach-online/ltto-episodes?view=video&video=235

I like to recommend the following Online Discussion Guide and its rubric to Subject Matter Experts like yourself. You may want to consider it for you course.

Guide to Online Discussion (online paced version):


Guide to Online Discussion (standard web version):



For more ideas on how to facilitate discussions in a standard web course click here.