March 10, 2006 (Revised July 23, 2012)
e-Coaching Tip 7: Promoting Peer Interaction and Discussion
One of the challenges faced by online students is the feeling of isolation. This can be a natural result of the lack of informal and casual interaction with other students about course content and assignments. This tip provides some ideas for promoting interaction among learners to reduce these feelings of isolation, and increase learning through community.
One of the barriers to the acceptance of online learning as a “real” learning experience is rooted, I believe, in the feeling that relationships and community are integral to the learning process. We see this in the recommendation that, when possible, students live in communal settings. It is also evident in those learning experiences that are situated in retreat settings for three or four days. Living with your fellow learners embeds learning into a 24/7 experience. It is this holistic and focused learning environment that is missing in the online setting.
How do we overcome this natural consequence of online learning environments? How can we encourage, promote and improve peer interaction and community in online learning?
Getting Started with Interaction
It is now common practice to launch an online course with a getting-acquainted forum. As mentioned in Tip 6 Getting to Know Your Students, this is a time for faculty to get to know the students and for students to get to know each other.
If we examine the postings in these getting acquainted forums we find that students naturally note connections with fellow students, based on geography, similar work environments, similarities in their progress towards degrees, and favorite sports teams. We often also see students expressing delight in seeing learners from previous courses. These are natural connections that can be encouraged through effective design.
Another common practice to promote interaction is to “set a minimum number of required responses” that must be made to peers as part of the participation grade in forums. On the surface, this seems to be a good strategy, but in actual practice, it can seem stilted and quite artificial. In a class of ungrouped 20 to 30 students, how do learners decide to whom they will respond? Do they respond to someone who already has been responded to many times, carrying on a conversation, or do they respond to someone’s posting that is difficult and awkward or too light to be interesting to respond to? That decision alone can be time-consuming and sometimes, for sensitive learners, a source of stress.
One strategy for implementing the required “peer response” practice more effectively is to subgroup the students into smaller groups or teams for the “required” responses. This can encourage more sustained conversation and reduce time and stress on, “Who is saying something that I want /should respond to? “
Course Design Elements that Promote Interaction
Here are a few design ideas for promoting interaction among the learners in an online course.
- Provide a special place on the web site where learners can talk to and help each other. This can be a virtual café or simply an open discussion forum that learners use for posting questions of fellow learners. Learners are often working late at night and on weekends, and are likely to see and answer questions before a faculty member. Learners do like to share their discoveries and how they might have figured out similar questions. An added benefit is how this mutual support builds community.
- Group students into small groups of four to five students for responding to the postings in the first two to three weeks of a course. This strategy encourages students to identify with learners more deeply. This is similar to ad-hoc grouping in a physical classroom. Sometimes grouping can be based on learners with similar or complementary thinking or learners holding different perspectives.
- Design activities for dyads (pairs) of students. This can be done in weeks 3 to 5 and is well-suited for assignments handling simple to complex problem-solving. Dyads can also be set up for sharing specific challenges form learners’ similar work environments.
- Design some discussion forums that require students to assume different roles, such as summarizer, questioner, reviewer, and supporter.
- Design assignments that have multiple steps, such as a proposal step and then have learners review and consult on the proposals of one or two other learners.
- Allocate some of the grading points in your assessment plan for discussion response, peer review and community support
Promoting Meaningful Dialogue and Questioning
We often forget the value of models and examples. Students may want to make significant contributions to the discussion conversation, but don’t’ quite know what this means. This is where samples of meaningful dialogue can be very helpful.
Let us assume that you have developed rubrics for assessing discussion forum dialogue. Rubrics are a good place to include brief examples of both effective and superficial postings. Creating good examples can seem artificial; fortunately, the best examples of effective dialogue often occur in the progress of a course. As students post effective responses, you can collect those and create a resource of effective example postings for future courses.
Role of Teaching Assistants in Promoting Interaction
When it is possible, a teaching assistant is a valuable member of the instructional team for larger online courses. The roles and responsibilities of a teaching assistant can be key in supporting the development of a learning community. The particular role that a faculty member brings to a course is that of content expertise and interaction expertise. The particular value of a teaching assistant can be in supporting the activities and conversations of the students, the important nitty-gritty daily interactions. Achieving balance in these roles is essential, as the presence of the voice of the faculty member makes a significant difference in student satisfaction.
Croft, N., Dalton, A., & Grant, M. (2010). Overcoming Isolation in Distance Learning: Building a Learning Community through Time and Space. Journal for Education in the Built Environment5(1), 27-64. Retrieved July 17, 2012 from http://cebe.cf.ac.uk/jebe/pdf/NicholasCroft5(1).pdf
Liu, S. (2008). Student Interaction Experiences in Distance Learning Courses A Phenomenological Study. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration.Volume 11 (1). Retrieved July 17, 2012 from http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/spring111/Liu111.html
McInnerney, J. M., & Roberts, T. S. (2004). Online Learning: Social Interaction and the Creation of a Sense of Community. Educational Technology & Society, 7 (3), 73-81. Retrieved July 17, 2012 from http://beespace.net/resources/Evo05/social interaction.pdf
Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2016 in the second edition of the book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by designingforlearning.org.