Fostering productive social interactions is essential to creating meaningful learning experiences, including online learning (e.g., Hurst et al., 2013). In this chapter, we explore the ways asynchronous learning activities can engage students in online discussions and wikis. We will rely on Hurst et al. (2013), who see social interactions as vital “meaningful dialogue among learners” (p. 376). In this view, learning takes place “largely through interactions among students” and “students learn by expressing their questions, pursuing lines of inquiry together, teaching each other, and seeing how others are learning” (Stahl et al., 2014, p. 480). Following Atwood et al. (2010), however, we see “productive social interactions as occurring when it is possible that some interactions “are more beneficial for knowledge development than are others” (p. 359). Atwood sees such interactions as grounded in the work of Jean Piaget in that they are “ideally suited for achieving mutual understanding and knowledge development” (p. 360).
However, online learning has a doggedly persistent reputation for lacking productive social interactions. It is often associated with isolating experiences that may impact attendance, motivation, and participation in learning activities. In the rapid shift to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, some research has reported a lack of social interaction or socialization in virtual learning settings (e.g., Al-Mawee et al., 2021; Bestiantono et al., 2020; Bdair, 2021; Ewing & Cooper, 2021; Famularsih, 2020). We recognize that many of these concerns are well-founded. Still, our own experiences (and the academic literature) suggest that the problems and challenges encountered in online learning environments are often attributable to poorly designed learning environments. Professors and teachers have had millennia to hone the skills involved in onsite learningbut online environments are novel for most instructors forced to adopt online methods recently. They require skills which are not part of their current bag of tricks, including identifying and using new technologies to enrich synchronous and asynchronous online learning.
In this chapter, we will show how well-designed asynchronous activities can promote productive social interactions that may lead to deep learning (Fullan et al., 2013). We will provide practical guidelines for designing, implementing, and facilitating well-researched asynchronous learning tools in collaborative wiki projects and online text-based discussions. We will indicate possible challenges that might arise during the design and implementation of these activities and steps that may be taken to overcome them. We conclude each section with a list of valuable resources that should support readers who want more information.
One general guideline that we think needs to be stated regarding productive social interactions is that they are unlikely to spontaneously manifest independently. For example, although wikis have “properties that are particularly amenable” to constructing collaborative learning experiences, it does not follow that any and all wiki work will necessarily result in productive social interactions (Larusson & Alternamn, 2009, p. 373). That is, telling students to construct a wiki collaboratively will not automatically lead to productive collaborative discourse though it could happen on rare occasions (cf. Oeberst et al., 2014)—more on this below. We consider the role of the educator, as a designer and curator of learning experiences, to be fundamental in the planning, development, implementation, and facilitation of such activities to ensure that they can engender productive social interactions that may consequently mediate meaningful learning outcomes.
The demand for careful planning for productive engagement may be especially applicable to fully online learning settings, in which “stimulating and sustaining productive student interaction is difficult to achieve; it requires skillful planning, coordination, and implementation of curriculum, pedagogy, and technology” (Stahl et al., 2014, p. 480-481). Many established and well-researched online learning frameworks highlight the teacher’s fundamental role in orchestrating meaningful learning experiences for students in online learning settings. As a generally well-received and researched example, the CoI framework illustrates that the teacher’s role, or what they refer to as teaching presence, “is essential in balancing cognitive and social issues consistent with intended educational outcomes” (p. 101). In this way, the teacher “models effective problem solving, provides constructive feedback, offers probing questions and otherwise actively facilitates tasks so that students can witness scholarly and ethical thinking in action” (Anderson, 2017, p. 7). The salience of teaching presence is evident in Zhang et al. (2016), who found that even students’ perceptions that the teacher is engaged in an online learning environment can positively “impact on their constructive and interactive engagement behaviours” (p. 887).
While teaching presence may not be limited to the activities of the teacher (cf. van Oostveen et al., 2016), we want to emphasize that it should not refer to simply providing direct instruction. Teaching presence also involves designing, organizing and facilitating educational activities (Anderson et al., 2001). Our objective is to demonstrate that deep and meaningful education doesn’t rely on broadcasting information. Indeed, “appropriate forms of interjections through direct instruction” (Anderson, 2017, p. 7) may sometimes be effective. However, the careful design, organization, and facilitation of asynchronous activities are integral for realizing students’ potential while fostering productive social interactions and meaningful learning experiences. The asynchronous activities described below depend on careful curation and reflection to work well.
Our focus is on two kinds of asynchronous activities: wikis and text-based discussions. Productive social interactions occur in both environments. Both are Web 2.0 technologies that arguably have a positive impact on education. Glassman and Kang (2011) refer to such tools as harbingers “of innovations a long time coming” (p. 94) in education. We believe that the activities we describe can lead to productive student social interactions and may democratize classrooms by empowering students to direct and co-construct their own learning experiences (van Oostveen et al., 2016).
Our guidelines for designing, implementing, and facilitating asynchronous activities will be concrete strategies that you may adapt to your contexts and purposes. The reference list and general resources are available for those interested in further reading.
Activity 1: Collaborative WikiProjects
Many think of collaboration as a synchronous face-to-face activity (e.g., Dillenbourg, 1999). We will show that collaboration can also happen asynchronously. Wikis, for example, are tools for engaging students in collaborative learning across time and distance (e.g., Larusson & Alternamn, 2009). Think of wikis as websites that learners use to connect with, restructure, expand, and link to numerous web pages (Karasavvidis, 2010). They can foster collaborative activity through their “intuitive basic functions…and their underlying structure and mechanisms (that) can support learning processes and social interaction” (Heimbuch et al., 2018, p. 333, parentheses added). Those essential functions enable learners to edit content, review prior versions of pages, and communicate with one another (Lin & Reigeluth, 2016). Nonetheless, “it does not necessarily follow that they will ensure or even encourage collaborative learning behaviour” (Judd et al., 2010, p. 341). As Zheng et al. (2015) noted, productive wiki usage to support collaborative learning depends on “well-designed instruction” that is “vitally important in wiki-based learning activities” (p. 372).
Before discussing the strategies that you might use to specifically foster collaboration in class wiki projects, we have some preliminary guidelines on selecting an appropriate wiki platform and properly orienting your students to the unique demands of working in a collaborative wiki environment.
Choose a Wiki Platform
Choosing an appropriate wiki platform may be challenging since some require a server or high levels of technical skills. On the other hand, some learning management systems (LMS), such as BlackBoard, offer built-in wikis that may have limited features but offer the virtue of being private and not publicly accessible. Some publicly available wikis will allow learners to search the wiki but not edit it—thus limiting the possibilities for collaborative learning.
While it is possible to get educational value from browsing a wiki (e.g., KidzSearch—see Table 1), we use wikis as places for knowledge production. Engaging learners in writing their wiki entries and editing others involves collaborative learning that can stretch across space and time (if multiple schools are engaged in projects over several years). We believe learning to accept the edits of others and to improve pages involves the kind of critical reflection that we have described as productive social interaction. Figure 1 provides two examples of Wiki creation tools with specific pros and cons.
Wiki creation tools pros and cons
Plan a Wiki-Orientation Session
Planning a wiki orientation session can help overcome barriers such as learners’ technical abilities and learning mindsets. For example, your students may lack knowledge of basic wiki functions (e.g., logging in, navigating, creating/editing pages). Many are uncomfortable with the idea of editing or removing others’ existing work in the wiki or working collaboratively with peers. We have found it useful to overcome such barriers by having a wiki-edit-a-thon at the beginning of each semester to allow students to get accustomed to the nature of collaborative wiki projects. During such orientations, you may find it beneficial to:
- Have small groups rather than whole group sessions since collaboration happens better with small groups. We do this in a synchronous meeting and provide each group with a topic and some starter links—the attached overview [Doc.] is an example from the Principles of Learning course (names other than the authors’ have been removed).
- Give each group a guide—an experienced wiki user (volunteers from previous classes or knowledgable, enthusiastic class members)— if possible.
- Have the guides help with wiki skills like finding pages, adding pages, using special pages, encouraging and supporting collaborative writing, planning, and editing/deleting other people’s work. Guides should encourage group members to identify needed content and plan for future contributions.
- Debrief with your students so that students may ask questions, and you can get feedback for further development of the wiki and the course.
Interested readers may access the Teaching and Learning Wiki to see some of the results from this edit-a-thon or explore the wiki more generally. Any professionals interested in contributing to the wiki may request an account (see top right of the main page).
Guidelines for Designing and Implementing Your WikiProject (Before the Activity)
Having chosen a wiki platform and considered planning an orientation session for your students, you may consider the design and implementation strategies that can foster collaborative activity among your students. You will want to avoid situations where the wiki contributions are simply collections of individual work rather than joint products (Stahl et al., 2014). The following strategies should help you encourage your students to collaborate in the co-construction of a class wiki.
Form Small Groups and Assign Roles
Collaborative learning theory suggests that students collaborate more effectively in small groups where individual group members are assigned roles (Zheng et al., 2015). We encourage you to consider at least three roles:
- A starter initiates discussions and ideas for possible wiki edits (e.g., explores possible themes and topics that the group can work on together).
- A moderator facilitates discussions (e.g., posing questions and soliciting opinions).
- A source searcher retrieves valuable resources to inform the group about their chosen topic (e.g., exploring sources beyond the course material).
Other possible roles include analyst, recorder, timekeeper, synthesizer, skeptic, ombudsperson, and peacemaker. The exact set of roles is less critical than giving each participant a legitimate reason for speaking up. For a single event, it usually works well to let students choose the role they want to play. In a class where group activities are frequent, assigning roles may help students apply different skill sets.
Use a Collaboration Script
A collaboration script is a set of explicit instructions for learners that should “focus on the discussion aspect of wiki-based knowledge construction” (Heimbuch et al., 2018, p. 334). Collaboration scripts can encourage your students to engage in collaborative activity, not independent collections. They believe collaboration scripts should encompass a DDR approach (discuss, deliberate, revise). Participants are encouraged to discuss and collectively contemplate any planned edits and revisions before making changes to the document. Heimbuch et al. (2018) suggest a three-step process:
- Students to propose article edits in a designated and corresponding discussion area (see below).
- Students to reach a consensus about what changes before editing.
- Coupons reaching consensus, students plan and make changes to the wiki.
We would add that it is important to frequently remind students that future students may edit their contributions and that this is a form of collaboration.
Set-up a Designated Discussion Space
Many wikis have a built-in communication tool (e.g., a discussion page); however, students will need other tools to keep up with current events (Larusson & Alternamn, 2009). An LMS, for example, can help structure and organize support group interaction and foster dialogue about issues within the wiki environment. A designated discussion space supports group interaction, fosters dialogue and enables instructors to provide guiding questions and help set and manage goals. Other collaborative writing tools, like Google Docs, support collaboration and communication.
Having a discussion space available should do more than help coordinate activities – it should encourage students to get maximum credit for their learning by cross-posting information from the wiki to the discussion platform and vice-versa. Cross-posting enriches the discussions and helps the students to focus on writing for an audience—the discussion is for us, but the wiki is for anybody. Equally important, writing about their learning on multiple platforms should strengthen understanding.
Guidelines for Facilitating your WikiProject (During the Activity)
Facilitating collaborative learning during wiki projects should maintain productive collaborative discourse and attend to group dissolution. Both direct and indirect strategies may facilitate collaborative learning during the wiki activity.
Provide Guiding Questions
Encourage collaboration throughout your class wiki project by providing guiding questions for teams to plan and design wiki-page outlines. The edit-a-thon is one approach, but open-ended questions also work. Algasahb et al. (2019) recommend a dialogic approach including questions, suggestions, and resources. More directive approaches may hinder the collaborative writing process and breed dependency on the instructor.
Help Set and Manage Goals
Breaking a project into smaller pieces helps students from becoming overwhelmed. For instance, Zheng et al. 2015) note that helping set and manage goals during the wiki project can be as easy as providing a timeline “to finish an outline, when to complete the first draft and when to have a final draft” (p. 370). Importantly, helping to set and manage goals for your students will be crucial for ensuring that they can co-construct the wiki collaboratively in their groups. Judd et al. (2010) explain that if students’ contributions are made individually and behind schedule, it may preclude the possibility of them engaging in extensive collaborations with their peers.
Influence Learning Mindsets
Influencing your learners’ mindsets about collaborative writing and knowledge construction may be necessary for success. Some research has shown that students may engage more in collaborative knowledge building if they adopt a positive mindset about co-constructed learning (Lin & Regeluth, 2015; 2021). You can help by actively facilitating this shift in perspective by providing ongoing feedback and encouraging a culture of sharing (Lin & Reigeluth, 2019). This process may include discussing student concerns and establishing the importance of community building (Reigeluth, 2021).
Possible Challenges Using Collaborative Wiki Activities
Your efforts to promote collaboration in a wiki project may not be successful at first. Therefore we recommend that you monitor student contributions and make suggestions for collaboration where you see opportunities. There is also potential for unequal participation among students. For instance, you may notice that one or two students are doing most or all of the work in their group. Strauß & Rummel (2021) argue that unequal participation may prevent productive collaboration among students and negatively affect their satisfaction with the activity. They suggest explicitly creating group awareness to assist students in socially regulating their collaborative activity. We recommend making students aware of practical collaboration guidelines and monitoring their interactions. While it is beyond the scope of this piece, there is much to be gained from Johnson and Johnson’s (2008) notion of positive interdependence.
Other Helpful Resources
The following resources are links to other guides that we believe can help you successfully design, implement, and facilitate collaborative wiki projects with your students:
Activity 2: Critical Inquiry in Online Discussions
Asynchronous online discussions (AODs) are text-based forums for students’ discussion and development of critical thinking (e.g., DiPasquale & Hunter, 2018). AODs have the potential to engage students in interactions that promote critical thinking due to “increased opportunities for all students…to contribute to the discussion and more time for information processing, reflective thinking, and the construction of high-quality responses to peers” (Schindler & Burkholder, 2014, p. 12).
Critical thinking and discussion in AODs are often associated with the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework’s Practical Inquiry Model (PIM). Very briefly, the CoI model conceptualizes critical thinking as cognitive presence, “the extent to which the participants in any particular configuration of a community of inquiry can construct meaning through sustained communication” (Garrison et al., 2000, p. 90). The PIM provides a logical rationale for such sustained communication. In this way, AODs may lead to transformative and deep learning experiences. We believe the following strategies can encourage productive online social interaction among your students in AODs.
Get Familiar with the Practical Inquiry Model
The critical elements of the PIM are
- a triggering event recognizing a dilemma or problem;
- exploration—seeking relevant information to understand the problem better;
- integration of divergent ideas and construction of meaning; and
- resolution of problem that demonstrates “opportunities to apply newly created knowledge” (Garrison et al., 2000, p. 11).
Systematically designing activities that include these elements should ensure that your AODs foster productive social interactions.
Choose an Online Discussion Medium
The discussion board in your school’s LMS has significant advantages in accessibility and familiarity. Still, social media platforms like Facebook or WeChat (e.g., Xu et al., 2020) may also serve your needs. A key element in choosing a platform is the capability of threading posts so that comments related to a common topic follow one another.
Guidelines for Designing and Implementing AODs (Before the Activity)
In planning for and designing activities for your AOD, we encourage you to explicitly use the processes of the PIM (listed above) to guide your thinking so that we will use those processes in the following discussion.
Use Pre-work Activities
Plan to implement your AODs after your students have become familiar with the course themes and topics to allow deeper, meaningful conversations. They will be ready to encounter a PIM triggering event with this background. A case study, for example, could incorporate information sources that may shape opinions. We have used a case study involving public education for dealing with the hypothetical H2N5 virus. If we were re-writing that case now, news articles about COVID measures could inform students before engaging in problem-solving for the case. In a history education setting, you might introduce students to conflicting accounts of historical events to create a solid foundation to engage them in an asynchronous discussion about how historians assess the validity of data and arguments. They will then be prepared for the PIM processes of exploring new information and integrating diverse perspectives as they work toward a resolution that addresses the problem in the case.
Design Argumentative and Open-ended Questions
Case studies present learners with a problem, but you may prefer to pose open-ended questions as a triggering device. Oh, and Kim (2016) claim that conventional open-ended questioning methods may result in only “surface-level thinking, such as simple information sharing and exploration” (p. 40) and also call for using the PIM to guide your questioning. They also stress encouraging them to share their thoughts and constructively comment on peer contributions.
For instance, in a social studies context, instead of asking “what biases do you perceive in the ways different media outlets reported on the January 2022 truckers’ convoy to Ottawa?”, it may be more productive to ask “which media outlets influenced your thinking about the January 2022 truckers’ convoy to Ottawa? How did their portrayal of events shape your thinking about the issues involved?” Such Socratic questioning in your AODs can move the critical inquiry process beyond exploration and encourage your students to begin to integrate different perspectives and information and move to the resolution phase.
Create and Assign Scripted Roles
Creating and assigning scripted roles during AODs can promote critical thinking and discussion (e.g., Olesova & Lim, 2017; Gašević, 2015; Kanuka et al., 2007; Darabi et al., 2013). Our literature review (DiPasquale & Hunter, 2018) noted the general potential of role assignment, but Schindler and Burkholder (2014) illustrate several specific roles that may promote critical discussion and thinking in AODs:
- Devil’s advocate—take an opposing position of a classmate and justify it.
- Elaborator— expand or provide support for an idea someone else has already made.
- Importer—bring outside ideas, from other classes or the news, into the discussion.
- Inventor—generate new ideas and perspectives that have yet to be brought up.
- Mini-me—represent the author’s position (from an assigned reading) on the discussion topic.
- Synthesizer—make connections between posts and push the conversation forward.
- Theoretician— introduce theoretical information to the discussion.
- Traffic director—keep the discussion moving and intervene when the discussion gets off track. (p.20)
Provide Step-by-Step Discussion Protocols
It may be helpful to share step-by-step discussion protocols with your students explicitly. Zydney et al. (2012) explicit discussion protocols that “provide a very structured discussion prompt, which lets students know their role, giving built-in supports leading to a progression in thought” (p. 80), were effective at supporting productive social interaction in asynchronous activities. Improving self-regulation also reduces the need for the instructor to post or intervene in discussion excessively, which allows students to “feel more comfortable expressing themselves” (An et al., 2009, p. 81).
We have found value in giving students a list of specific tips [Doc.] for posting in the AODs before the activities begin. These tips inform students that they should prepare their posts adequately and that they have done the required readings and reviewed the previous posts of their peers before making their contributions. However, since AODs can quickly become overwhelming, remind students not to respond to all of their peers’ posts.
Use Critical Thinking Constructs
As we noted above, familiarizing yourself with critical discussion and inquiry frameworks will be beneficial when you are designing AODs. In our review of the literature (DiPasquale & Hunter, 2018), we found support for developing and implementing AODs using specific constructs of critical thinking (Morueta et al., 2016; Sadaf & Olesova, 2017). Others used a construct as a procedural facilitation instrument (De Leng et al., 2009). For example, Sadaf and Olesova (2017) demonstrate how designing discussion questions based on the PIM can correlate with higher levels of cognitive presence during AODs. Specifically, the researchers designed a case-based discussion guided by a sequence of four questions that reflected the triggering, exploration, integration, and resolution. The authors provide the following examples to illustrate the kinds of PIM questions that they developed for their study:
What do you think are the problems with the way Mr. Evans has designed his instruction [Triggering question]? How can your (use the one you have been assigned) theoretical perspective help to understand the problems presented in this case [Exploration question]?… Briefly identify a fundamental principle (or principles) taken from the theoretical perspective and explain how it would be applied to solve the learning problem presented in the case [Integration question]. Justify your response by providing applications of your solutions in real-world situations [Resolution question]. (Sadaf & Olesova, 2017, p. 61).
Using Bloom’s taxonomy, Morueta et al. (2016) created analytical, evaluative, and creative web tasks that required self-regulation. These tasks encouraged students to make “judgements based on criteria and standards through checking and critiquing” and put “elements together to form a coherent and functional whole” (p. 124). For instance, in a creation discussion task, the goal might be to have students ultimately design an artifact (e.g., blog post, essay, wiki page, etc.) that may also correspond to the resolution phase of the PIM.
The studies mentioned here are only examples of using critical thinking constructs like Bloom’s Taxonomy or the PIM to develop different AOD strategies. We encourage you to be creative and explore the different ways that frameworks like these can become embedded in AODs.
Integrate with WikiProjects
Combining your AODs with collaborative wiki projects can simultaneously facilitate two kinds of productive social interactions: critical discussion/inquiry and collaborative learning. For example, when one of the author’s experiences in a collaborative wiki project lacked communication with his peers, it left him feeling the activity was anything but collaborative (DiPasquale, 2017). Based on his critique, he began to explore ways the wiki project might be coordinated with the class AODs to foster student interaction and collaboration.
Guidelines for Facilitating AODs (During the Activity)
Teaching presence is essential in OADs; however, it may be better to moderate your intervention during discussions when implementing the following strategies. Too much instructor intervention during AODs can paradoxically lower student-student interactions (e.g., An et al., 2009). The goal is to facilitate a mostly self-directed process of critical inquiry. Finding a healthy balance between proper facilitation techniques and fostering students’ autonomy will likely require some experience and practice. Each group of students will be different and require either more or less direct intervention during AODs.
Use and Model Socratic Questioning
One potentially effective way to facilitate the critical inquiry process among your students during their participation in AODs is to use and model Socratic questioning (Schindler & Burkholder, 2014; Yang et al., 2005). According to Hew et al. (2010), Socratic questioning involves posing questions to clarify assertions, prove assumptions, and elicit reasoning and evidence. Socratic questioning may consist of questions that elicit clarification, challenge assumptions, evidence and reasoning, alternative viewpoints, implications and consequences, and challenges to the question itself (Sutton, 2021). As an example, when eliciting clarification and evidence/reasoning, you may ask, can you explain what you mean by this and provide examples that support your position? To avoid excessive instructor intervention, use Socratic questioning moderately and focus on modelling the behaviour so that students may adopt the strategy themselves.
Invite Expert Virtual Guests
Some research has suggested that, when possible, inviting expert guests to post in AODs and respond to students can help facilitate processes of critical discussion and inquiry (Kanuka et al., 2007). Hemphill and Hemphill (2007) demonstrated that the presence of a virtual guest speaker can encourage “a wide range of critical thinking responses from the students, as well as extensive communication among the students” (p. 2929). You may want to recruit local colleagues or previous students to be virtual guests by posting recorded presentations, initiating discussions, and responding to students’ discussion posts.
The most likely challenge you will face in supporting critical discussion and inquiry among your students in AODs is getting your students to participate. Some literature has noted that lack of participation and engagement can plague even well-designed and well-intentioned AOD activities as students become ‘lurkers’ who may just skim discussions without actively participating in them (Amichai-Hamburger et al., 2016). Rather than dwell on instructor-led interventions to address this, try increasing student responsibility as part of assigning roles to your students (as discussed above). Hew and Cheung (2008) demonstrated that randomly choosing students to act as facilitators of weekly AODs can help attract other students to participate in the discussions. They offer the following techniques to student facilitators to attract their peers’ participation effectively:
- Sharing their own opinions and/or experiences about the theme or topic.
- Questioning the perspectives of others and asking for clarifications.
- Establishing expectations and rules for participation in the AODs.
- Demonstrating appreciation to those who make posts and contributions to the discussions.
- Offering new directions by suggesting potentially new areas for discussion.
- Personally inviting their peers to contribute to specific posts.
- Occasionally summarizing the progress of discussions. (p. 1118)
These links to other guides may help you successfully design, implement, and facilitate critical asynchronous discussions with your students:
- Best 11 Open-source Free Wiki Tools
- 3 Design Tips To Improve An Online Discussion Forum
- Effective Asynchronous Discussions
We have focused on just two kinds of online interaction for brevity: wikis and AODs. However, we think you can also apply the principles and practices discussed above to blogs, tweets, and other social media. We’d like to point in that direction with just a few guiding questions:
- What are the assets of blogs as instructional tools, and how might we promote productive social interactions there?
- What Twitter features (e.g., likes, re-tweets, attachments, hashtags and direct messaging) create a different set of challenges and opportunities than other social media, and how can they promote productive social interactions?
- How would the image dominance of Instagram or the video dominance of TicToc shape different kinds of interactions, and how might they be educationally productive?
Lastly, we hope the advice here will help some readers move beyond the perception of online learning as an added chore and begin seeing it as an opportunity to revitalize thinking, teaching, and students’ learning experiences.
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