A Look At Creating Online Collaborative Spaces For Students

online collaboration

Even in a traditional classroom setting, today’s students expect an online space to complement their classes, and more and more, they expect that space to be social and collaborative. For my students, I’ve found that tools, from simple file-sharing like Dropbox to something more elaborate like journaling applications, are something they increasingly ask for, since their comfort zone is to communicate online as well as in person. For educators, it’s an added tool in the arsenal to use collaboration technologies, from dedicated platforms to existing social media, to engage students, especially in higher ed.

Many schools of course now use some form of LMS (learning management system), offering a collaborative space for students and instructors. However, sometimes an LMS doesn’t offer the right features, for instance, supporting an offsite, or they’re too feature-heavy. There are several affordable or free tools beyond the LMS that keep students connected to your class when they’re not in the classroom. They range from absolutely basic to full-featured. These tools range from file-sharing and organizing, to managing educational travel, to project management. You’ll need to tailor the technology to course goals—for instance, journaling apps if writing is core, a travel app for a study-abroad program.

They key is to find ones that work for you. Students like practical applications that help them accomplish an immediate task—they then see immediate benefits, and are more likely to use the tools, increasing their participations in the class. The key is to introduce technology early, so that it becomes a part of the class that helps facilitate learning from the beginning—it’s this early and consistent use is what helps students make a technology their own.

Beyond using the right tools, however, goes having a strategy for online collaboration. We need to honor the new way students learn, which is very collaborative, but often uses technology to mediate collaboration. Building technology into the classroom fosters collaboration, if it’s integrated well. Here are practical ways of using technology-mediated collaboration that work well for me:

Time Management

Today’s higher ed students are often non-traditional. They are more likely to work, have family commitments, or live off-campus. All of these factors make the traditional after-class work session harder for many, or impossible. With project work now increasingly core to higher ed, this makes technology to essential to allow students to work together remotely. File-sharing apps like Dropbox allow students to share files, organizing team work around the final project. There are many apps and web tools out there that let students assign and check on responsibilities, check in on status, and upload files. From project collaboration tools to checklist apps, there is a lot of technology out there to help students (and teachers!) keep on track with their workflow.

Promote Experience

Experiential learning is on the rise—it’s where project-based learning was many years ago. Collaboration tools make experiential learning much richer. A common place for students to share experiences and stories helps them connect classroom and the outside world. For practicums, a project-management tool is a must. Just be sure the instructor is an administrator of the tool. For travel, start with a travel app such as EdTrips, where you can upload itineraries, supporting documents like readings, and links to destinations so students can prepare for what they will learn on their travels. On return, use visual tools such as Flickr or journaling tools like Evernote to help students share their experiences, comment, and process lessons from their travels.

Social Collaboration

Your students are likely to already be familiar with social media. By leveraging these skills, you can easily build collaborative spaces, even if students are working on individual projects. Your LMS is likely the best tool to build a forum where students can comment on projects or share ideas. Make sure you assign forum participation as required for the course, to make sure that the collaboration is at the heart of the class. If you lack an LMS, free Drupal Commons sites provide intuitive forums.
Regardless of your class format, subject, or teaching style, there is a way to incorporate collaboration into the syllabus. Whether your students are traditional or adult, they’re likely already using some now, and will find the tools help them learn inside their comfort zones, while learning to support each other’s growth, as well.