Collaboration strategies that work online…

Collaboration online can be daunting, especially when you are tasked with learning how to use new technology tools while at the same time continuing to support student learning, safety and well-being. But there are effective ways to bring some of the more traditional strategies you may be familiar with to the online classroom… 


Jigsaw activities involve small groups that collaborate and become experts on a topic and then share (or teach) the concept to others, who then take the information back to their respective expert groups. Jigsaws can easily be facilitated using group and whole-class asynchronous discussion forums, in synchronous live meetings in web conferencing tools that include breakout rooms or a combination of both delivery methods. I frequently use this approach (that I borrowed some years ago from my colleague Lisa Dawley) for the learning background information on a topic:

This approach provides an opportunity for students to focus entirely on one aspect of a topic so they can prepare an initial post that is well-crafted, it allows them an opportunity to interact with their peers in an academic setting, and it provides the teacher an opportunity to evaluate how well students follow directions in a highly structured setting so they can adjust instruction accordingly. In addition students learn (quickly) about important background information before embarking on a new unit or lesson. This activity is also good for a review of subject-matter already learned. I typically only interject in the discussion to let students know that I am reading their posts (important for engagement) and to correct any misconceptions. 

Jigsaw Instructions

Use the course texts, the resources provided in the research links provided and/or search for your own resources to assist you in answering questions from one group below (Set up groups of questions – I typically have three groups, otherwise it gets too complicated to follow).

Groups 1-3: Some important question? (This will include a different question for each group with one or two subquestions and perhaps a request to share a video, image or other piece of information that demonstrates, confirms or substantiates the response.

Discussion Board Instructions: (Include precise instructions for how the discussion forum will be structured.)

1. Answer questions from ONE of the above groups of questions. Post your answers in Week 2: Some Important Question discussion forum.

2. Write a critical response to at least THREE classmates, one in each question area (group). In your response, offer your insights, suggestions, further questions, praise when deserved. Your goal is to assist your peers in furthering their own learning through thoughtful reflection.

Role Play

Role-play can be a fun and risk-free strategy for remote learning. It is particularly useful for allowing learners to become comfortable in using discussion forums and, depending on the objectives of the activity, to develop a sense of camaraderie with peers. And role-play actually tends to be easier to implement online, because of the lack of a physical presence. In a face-to-face classroom, it can be difficult for learners to truly be in the roles they assume, for the simple fact that their actual presence brings with it some predefined characteristics. Thus, face-to-face role-play can often seem a bit silly. However, when learners are physically separated, the characters they create become much easier for others to believe in.

Examples of simple role-play activities include discussions or debates on various topics, in which learners take on the roles of newscasters, celebrities, talk show hosts, musicians, and historical figures. The role-play process involves setting the scene for the activity by creating a realistic scenario and developing questions and guidelines for the activity. Some wonderful Websites are available for facilitating role-play. For example, the NASA site has many resources for teachers and students and can be a rich source of material for establishing scenarios, providing resources and basic information, and allowing students to view images and videos of all matters related to space. 

Student-led discussions

Student-led discussions provide learners with an opportunity to demonstrate their mastery of a topic and also to demonstrate leadership skills—an important 21st century skill. Learners will be especially motivated if allowed to negotiate the topics of their discussions. Just make sure you set the ground rules for behavior – preferably with student input. Even though you may only participate moderately, you must still monitor the discussion forum for misunderstandings and misuse. 

Panel discussions and debates are other peer-led activities that replicate more authentic learning situations. Discussion boards are effective for these types of activities, as well, but if you feel adventurous, you might try Kialo, a collaborative online debate visualization tool, or Tricider, a brainstorming and decision-making tool. You might also experiment with Glogster, Canva or Visme to add a visual component to student-led discussions.

Problem Solving

Collaborative problem solving is a key 21st century skill. Common group problem-solving strategies used in the classroom include consensus building, Think-Pair-Share, Fishbowl, case study, collaborative writing, model making, and so on. Many problem-solving activities can be handled easily through whole-class, asynchronous discussions, in which the instructor simply poses a problem and asks learners to find a solution. However, more structured methods for solving problems can be facilitated through small-group discussions. Most LMSs have a group feature for this specific purpose. You might also consider assigning email pals or “Web buddies” to work in collaborative document creation sites, such as Google Docs.

Traditional face-to-face problem-solving activities can be transformed into online activities, if you are willing to think through how to modify the tasks involved in a given activity to accommodate the need for a delayed time response. For example, if you are familiar with Fishbowl activities, you know they involve two groups of learners: One group is in the “Fishbowl,” while the other group is designated as “Observers.” The idea is that the Fishbowl students speak, while the Observers listen carefully and cannot respond for a specified period of time. This activity can easily be facilitated online with a threaded discussion board. To do so, divide your class into two groups, allowing group 1 (Fishbowl) to contribute the first half of the week and group 2 (Observers) to contribute the second half.

Keep in mind that not all group problem-solving activities must be facilitated using text communications. Consider allowing the use of audio or video communications, as well. 

Presentations and Product Development

Although we often assume that a presentation is some form of slide show using a tool such as PowerPoint or Keynote, it can take on many forms. Google Slides offers a collaborative feature that other popular tools do not. Moreover, a presentation does not necessarily need to be live. It can be a recordinged or image or text based, using the rich resources available on the Internet. Offer alternatives for students to demonstrate mastery of learning objectives—for example, audio- and video-sharing using tools, such as Flipgrid, Screencastify, Voicethread, or Podbean; photo-sharing tools, such as Flickr or Pinterest; and online infographic creation tools such as Canva or Visme

Collaborative Websites, or wiki’s, are possibly the most versatile Web-based collaboration tool. Google Sites is a well-known tool that features a collaborative option. In addition to being well suited to shared writing, websites can be used for shared project and product development and as an authentic public dissemination tool. These types of tools have a database as their backbone, so they have the added benefit of maintaining a history of revisions that can be accessed at any time. This ensures that earlier versions will not be lost and also provides a mechanism for recording contributions. For example, a collaborative Website can be a useful tool for a shared writing activity, in which students read and edit the work of their peers. Each time the site is edited, a record of the change is noted that can easily be located later for grading. 

Low Tech Solutions

For those students with equity and accessibility issues, this article on Continuing Remote Learning for Students Without Internet provides some easy modifications that provide low tech solutions to content delivery. Here’s another good blog post on the topic. I’ll quickly summarize below some of the many options below: 

  • Dial into Zoom sessions with a phone (an associated phone number is always included in a scheduled Zoom meeting)

  • Provide instructions for how students should collaborate by phone if needed. 

  • Offer optional and alternative activities if students are not able to collaborate with classmates online. They may be able to collaborate with siblings or parents to emulate, as much as possible, a similar experience. 

  • Allow enough time for students without Internet access to complete assignments and still have time to download and upload assignments when they can access a hotspot. 

  • Enable offline access for G Suite on Chrome 

  • Google Docs can also be accessed offline with a simple extension

  • See if your LMS offers offline access to course materials (Schoology and EdX do)

  • Use a USB flash drive to copy and share materials – including webpages 

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