13 ideas for planning your online collaboration tools

Online teaching software

Take a moment to review Courosa’s setup for a grad school class.


As a professor teaching an online or blended class, one has many tools at your disposal to enable your students to collaborate online. Ultimately, one may consider encouraging collaboration in an online class to engage students through project based learning or to encourage a community of study.

As mentioned in our previous blog post, my wife and I are researching strategies for planning her biology and microbiology classes to move to an online format. We continued our study of materials from the University Of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. In the white paper entitled TEACHING IN THE CLOUD: LEVERAGING ONLINE COLLABORATION TOOLS TO ENHANCE STUDENT ENGAGEMENT ,  Chad Hershock and Mika LaVaque-Manty share lessons learned from the use of online collaboration tools used by University of Michigan. They provide the following motivations for introducing collaboration into the classroom:

• “…students demonstrated significantly greater learning gains, in terms of recall of basic knowledge and critical thinking, when collaborating than when working independently.”
• “Students also reported greater motivation and persistence regarding problem-solving tasks when working collaboratively.”

If you are also planning on teaching online or in a blended course, I would encourage you to review their report. The authors provide case studies from various types of professors. We have provided a check list of planning items mentioned in the report. We hope you find this summary helpful.

Design your online collaboration tools with a purpose
1.  Why will your students want to use the online collaboration tool? Is it easy to use? Have you designed incentive(s) for the students to collaborate? Do they earn points on their class grade for their participation?

2.  Consider encouraging your students to publish their writing and work online. In many cases, public publication of school work on a blog helps the students feel their assignment has meaning. Hopefully, they invest more effort into the quality of their content since the work will be seen by their peers and anyone on the Internet.

Ideas to make things easy for you and your students
3.  Consider time intensive start-up costs: how long will it take to load student accounts or profiles into your online collaboration tools?

4.  Does your school provide technical support for your online collaboration tool?

5.  If your school does not provide technical support for a tool, are you comfortable with supporting your students?

6.  As a school, consider establishing common online collaboration tools to help reduce the number of applications the students need to learn.

7. As a school, consider establishing tools so students have a “single sign-on.” Students get frustrated remembering many passwords.

8. Are your online tools usable and accessible to all students? (plan for students with disabilities)

9. Not all students are technology savvy. Plan tool orientation sessions as required. (pre-recorded or otherwise)

10. Test-drive online collaborative tools from the student perspective.

Details to provide clarity for rules of collaboration
11.  As the students collaborate, encourage your students to agree to a code of conduct. You might consider designing the code of conduct together with your students in the first week of class.

12.  Do the students have a clear understanding of “done” for online collaboration assignments?

13.  Protect the privacy of your student. Design assignments so that students can publish their work under an alias if requested.

At University of Michigan, the teaching staff has used products from Google, Box, and Piazza. Make sure to review their summary chart detailing tools implemented and their teaching purpose.

Google, Box, Piazza at UofM


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