Interaction/Collaboration in Your Course

In student course evaluations, one of the most frequent comments is whether or not the instructor was “present” throughout the course. For example, how responsive was the instructor to student questions either online or offline? Did he or she clearly explain when assignments or discussion board postings were due? How much feedback did the instructor provide?

Establish your presence within the course. Begin your course with a personal introduction and include some information about yourself and your teaching experiences so that students can get to know you and feel comfortable in sharing their own introductions.

Provide clear expectations as to how often you will communicate (post comments, feedback) and how often you expect your students to do the same. You should also give students an idea of how much time they will be expected to put in each week on assignments, discussions, quizzes, etc. so that they can manage their time accordingly.

Creating an online learning community

Whether the course is online or face to face, the basic principles of adult learning remain the same.

Students are engaged when they are part of a learning community. Research by Palloff and Pratt (2011) shows that an effective instructor will know how to get this process started, facilitate it effectively, and then remain in the background, acting as a resource and guiding the process.

An effective course contains opportunities for interaction and feedback. Instructors should incorporate different means for online collaboration, such as the use of discussion boards, wikis, blogs, and social media. Interactivity ensures that the course is not merely a self-study course.

Working in groups

Another way to encourage collaboration in your online course is to include group activities. Group work can provide another way for students to interact online and be able to develop the same type of working relationship that they would establish in the face-to-face classroom.

Breaking students into smaller groups for projects can be beneficial for both the students and instructors. Students can connect and work with one another and have their voices heard without feeling overwhelmed in a larger class setting, while instructors may find it easier to facilitate the smaller groups.

Tools for group activities: Break students into smaller online groups and have each group debate a topic or present a case study. Use the Groups tool in Blackboard to assign your students to a group. Once assigned, each group has their own discussion board to post ideas and resource for file sharing. Students can also communicate with one another via IM or e-mail, but the final project can be presented via wiki.

Using discussion forums

Asynchronous discussion and collaboration facilitates course dialogues in which students can participate equally. Many instructors use discussion boards weekly as a means for informally gauging whether students are grasping key concepts and making connections and discoveries that lead to learning. The discussion boards can also be used to encourage and foster a sense of community among students in the course and as a place for students to ask questions, get clarification on assignments, and share resources.

  • Include an introductory (ungraded) “icebreaker” post to encourage your students to post some personal information about themselves and what they hope to learn from the course.
  • Use the Water Cooler section of the discussion forums as a way to answer your students’ frequently asked questions about things that don’t pertain to the course material (i.e., technical issues, general questions on assignments, etc.).
  • Instruct students to post their own comments to your original thread/question, but also to respond to at least one other student’s remarks each week. This ensures student interaction.
  • Make your discussion board questions relevant to the week’s learning objectives and assignments.

Using collaboration tools effectively

Northeastern University Online uses a range of both synchronous and asynchronous collaboration tools for online learning. Synchronous tools are Blackboard Instant Messenger (IM) and web conferencing tools for real collaboration such as Blackboard Collaborate, while asynchronous collaboration tools can be in the form of wikis, blogs, or journals.

Communicate your expectations

Clearly define what constitutes a good discussion board or blog post by providing a model or rubric.

Provide context

Clearly define why students are working collaboratively, instead of individually, on a particular assignment or activity. For example, explain the logistical and pedagogical considerations you took into account when designing the activity so that students understand the potential value of working with others.


Make your presence known in the discussion board by redirecting, correcting, encouraging, or guiding discussion, as needed. If you do not intend to post frequently, explain that you are following the discussions daily even though you may only post as needed. If you do not plan to comment frequently, provide substantive, summative feedback at the end of each discussion so students can benefit from your feedback and observations.

Next: Using rubrics