Collaboration | Building Student Community and Collaboration Online

Originally Posted By Andrew K. Miller and published @ The ASCD Community Blog

This one is for my online and hybrid teachers or any teacher who has used technology but has found it difficult to foster collaboration and community.

First and foremost, even though many have been trained not to, your students can collaborate. In fact, students might not know they’re already collaborating; my WoW students (World of Warcraft) consistently collaborate to solve quests and gain experience.

The online world of education can be a lonely one, and until collaborative projects  and assessments become the norm (they are not now), it will remain a challenge to leverage community and collaboration online. Here are some tips:

  1. Translate their world of collaboration and community to one you want for your classroom. The culture of online games and technology comes with cultural resiliencies. Use them. Ask students to share moments in their online, gaming, or even real lives where they have worked together. Honor them, and make connections to the type of community and collaboration you want.
  2. Don’t grade discussion board assignments. Yes, I said it. Discussion boards are a formative assessment, not necessarily graded. They’re intended as a way to check in on student discussions, but primarily, discussion boards are places for students to grapple with content and concepts. Use scaffolding to have them ask questions of peers, but don’t use discussion boards as a punitive tool. Otherwise, students will not use them the way you want them to.
  3. Allow for space and time in discussion boards and other collaborative spaces. Some of the best discussions occur over a good chunk of time, longer than we might want. A good discussion can last anywhere from one week to a semester. Students may even want to discuss ideas you may not. Honor student voice, and give space for it. Good learning will occur there and will lead to a sense of community and student ownership. Remember that the learning is occurring synchronously and asynchronously, so time is not the ultimate driving force. Again, this relates to Tip #2 and grading. Once students show they know how to use discussion boards, then you can be more flexible with time and space.
  4. Do many team-building activities online. Just like in the first week in brick-and-mortar schools, you need to do a variety of team builders and icebreakers to create a safe place for students.  Hybrid teachers, you need to do both because you need students to see the community and collaboration in both places. The challenge is to take these activities that occur in the physical world and translate them into the activities that work online.
  5. Pick the right tool for the purpose. Before you go technology-happy with all the tools available, make sure you limit your choices to ones that foster community building and collaboration. Ask yourself how you want students to collaborate and build community, and then pick your tools.

I half-joke with teachers I work with, “If I’ve made you uncomfortable, then I have done my job.” Perhaps some of these ideas are causing some cognitive dissonance, and that is great. Just remember, if we want true student communities online and innovative collaboration, then we may need to do things differently than we have before.

About the Author

Post submitted by Andrew K. Miller, an educator and consultant for the Buck Institute for Education, which specializes in project-based learning for the 21st century. Connect with Miller on Twitter (@betamiller) or by e-mail

The above article was originally posted on the ASCD Community Blog.  ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization dedicated to advancing best practices and policies for the success of each learner. Our 160,000 members in 148 countries are professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members.


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