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Breaking Down Digital Walls: Collaboration & Social Annotation

Without further adieu, your must-have collaboration tools for online learning, with particular focus on social annotation.

online collaboration tools for students

Collaborative learning requires learners to work together to make connections, uncover new ways of understanding concepts, and achieve a shared goal  (Laal & Laal, 2012; Falcione et al. 2019). It continues to be one of the most effective instructional methods for students. In fact, studies show that collaboration increases students’ academic achievement and self-efficacy. And while it may seem more challenging to facilitate collaboration in online learning, research shows that student participation in online collaborative learning activities are related to better course outcomes — which explains the rise of online collaboration tools, like the online annotation tool, for students.

While there’s no shortage of online collaboration tools for students on the market, the best ones foster connection and community as well as provide learners with an active role and responsibility in their learning — working together to build knowledge, to explore ways to innovate, and to seek the conceptual knowledge needed to solve problems. In this article, we’re breaking down the must-have collaboration tools for online learning, with particular focus on online annotation.

Video & Online Annotation Tools for Content Creation & Feedback

If there’s just one tool you can use to improve student engagement and collaboration in online course work, let it be a social annotation tool!

Considering that video is the number one source of information for 66 percent of people and more than 55 percent of people report using video to learn new skills — this percentage is exceedingly higher for college-age teenagers — it’s imperative to include video as a part of your collaborative learning activities.

Video and the ability to annotate those videos provide an immersive, flexible, and engaging  experience, with the ability to integrate information in ways that can be fun and easy to understand. The use of video has also been linked to better cognitive results and learning outcomes, compared with more traditional teaching methodology (Chi, 2013).

  • One of the easiest ways to ensure that learners store information in their long-term memory is to pair concepts with meaningful images. Visuals help students make sense out of the content and direct attention, increasing the possibilities that the learners will remember the material.
  • Videos offer standardized information, but it can also be viewed more than once. Students can better retain the knowledge or check the veracity of the information they’ve learned.
  • Pairing video with annotation allows learners to highlight the interesting or important contents to make them more memorable and provide better feedback to others. In fact, research has shown that video annotation encourages students to concentrate more on the critical parts of a video, resulting in better learning performance than the conventional approach to using videos.
  • Similarly, an image annotation tool also allows a learner to focus in on key feedback related to a specific part of an image, making it more memorable.
  • Content creation, cross-platform access, and sharing allow instructors to support both independent study and group learning simultaneously.
  • Videos also offer the information as a quick snapshot, so it takes less time and resources within the scope of course instruction.

How to use video & an online annotation tool

To drive collaboration in online learning, consider using video and annotation in the following ways.

  1. Create videos to create connection: For online courses, a video welcome from the instructor sharing what students can expect from the course will help set expectations and plant the seeds for course community. As an ice breaker, have students create and post their own introductory videos and ask students to comment on a certain number of them.
  2. Deepen or solidify students’ learning: Use video to accompany lessons and course concepts. As an example, if students are working on narrative essays, and you’ve already provided instruction, resources, and model essays, add a video to the instructional mix. Create and share a video on the do’s and don’ts of narrative writing. Something short, novel, humorous, or fresh can really stick with students.
  3. Enrich a reading assignment: Whether students are reading a piece of fiction or nonfiction, they benefit from contextualizing the person, place, or thing they’re learning about. Sourcing video clips and sharing them in your course can assist in visualizing an event or a person, while setting the context.
  4. Drive collaboration through social annotation: Build assignments that require students to create and share videos, images, and written documents and then work with each other in a peer review to provide annotated feedback on the quality of that content. This collaborative activity gives students practice evaluating others’ work, providing constructive feedback, and being receptive to new ideas.

Instructors can incorporate online annotation tools into their LMS-powered courses to encourage better discussions, improve student engagement and retention, and simplify facilitation and grading. While LMSs often power online learning, online instructors may find themselves wondering how to annotate within LMS software. Unfortunately, this capability is not built into every LMS, and not all social annotation tools are created equal. Each has varying degrees of integration with video conferencing tools — important for synchronous online class sessions — as well as differences in hosting, viewing, creation/editing, auto-captioning capabilities, and mobile readiness

However, instructors can still incorporate social annotation tools into their courses by integrating video, image, and text annotation software into their LMS environments.

Discussion Board Tools to Fuel Connection

The use of discussion forums or boards to support teaching & learning has a 20+ year history of practice and scholarly research. While much of its initial practice and research have been in the fields of online and distance learning, the use of online discussion boards has slowly proliferated more widely across higher education, specifically as an asynchronous component of face-to-face courses.

Powering blended course work, the online discussion board is proving to be a powerful collaboration tool. It fosters a sense of community and encourages peer-to-peer interaction, which research demonstrates improves learner engagement and achievement.

Discussions can take the form of debate or reflective sharing — led by instructors or students themselves — giving all learners the opportunity to expand upon and clarify their understanding of key ideas. It moves beyond the more passive learning forms of reading, listening, and watching and allows the learner to actively engage with their peers and instructor. The value of this kind of asynchronous online social interaction should not be underestimated.

  • A good online discussion provides a collaborative learning experience that supports deeper understanding. This increases levels of student engagement and can help students improve their ability to transfer learning to new contexts.
  • Online learning can be isolating or overwhelming for students, which can lead to decreased motivation and increased attrition. Discussion boards are a way to provide connection to others.
  • Asynchronous online discussions allow for wider participation and deeper, more thoughtful treatment of the topic. Students have time to question, reflect, and edit their responses before sharing them with others.
  • Discussion boards are also critical for creating social presence and community online. Presence and community foster emotional connection — and these elements are key to improving engagement.

How to use discussion boards

A powerful tool for fueling meaningful interaction outside of the classroom, the discussion board can be used in a variety of ways to facilitate collaboration in online learning.

  1. Real-world, emotion-based prompts: Thoughtful discussion questions are one of the most important factors in creating an engaging discussion board. Choose discussion topics that are energizing and consider drawing on personal experience or real-world examples. Craft questions that give students the opportunity to form opinions, build on each other’s insights, and provide opportunity for debate.
  2. Small group discussions: Varying the size of discussion groups is important. Consistently forming smaller groups for regular discussion allows group members to listen carefully to a handful of peers and, over time, develop a feeling of belonging in that group. Small groups limit the number of students lining up to respond to a prompt and to each other, meaning fewer responses are repetitive and there is more incentive to engage with each other. Finally, small groups make everyone’s voice essential to the conversation. Knowing that your contributions will matter creates motivation to engage.
  3. Student-led discussions: Student participation increases when students facilitate online discussions. When you set up smaller discussion groups, use students to facilitate those conversations. Research has found that peer-facilitation and student-to-student methods of interaction online keep students more engaged than solely relying on student-to-instructor interaction.

Discussion board tools will have varying degrees of integration with your learning management system, different approaches to social engagement, as well as distinct capabilities when it comes to setting multiple due dates, assessing student participation, tracking engagement, and of course, incorporating the video and social annotation tools we mentioned earlier. At the very least, you’ll want to make sure your discussion board tool of choice can support these three activities.

Vibrant, multimedia grid-like discussion boards in Harmonize help students create presence. Vibrant, multimedia grid-like discussion boards in Harmonize help students create presence.

Polls & Q&A Tools for Interactive Communication

The process of question & answer is a foundational aspect of online teaching that is often treated as an afterthought. Too little, and you’re asking for disengagement.

But with a tool that allows you to conduct both polling and Q&A sessions with students, you have the opportunity to support better collaboration in online learning. In a study that analyzed online Q&As, results showed students interacted more on a voluntary basis with each other as well as with the instructor, supporting both their own process of inquiry as well as other students’ process of inquiry. Results also indicated that students acquired meta-cognitive development.

Similarly, polling allows students to share their perceptions and interact with each other, and also acts to inform instructors about course participants. Polls are an effective tool because they can:

  • Connect students in the course with each other so they can share their thoughts about particular topics.
  • Introduce a topic or activity in a more engaging way.
  • Provide useful information about students’ preparation and progress.
  • Help focus students’ learning.
  • Provide instructors with useful feedback that can guide course decisions.

Above all, Q&A and polls can be used for asynchronous collaboration that allow instructors to check in with students, creating more opportunities for engagement.

How to use Q&A and Polls

Q&A and polls should be very easy to set up and use, and can be a valuable addition to the course.

  1. Check on preparedness or course flow: Use polls or Q&A to check on students’ prerequisite knowledge. Based on responses, links and resources can be added to materials. For group work, a poll can provide information that can help form stronger groups with more diverse backgrounds and knowledge. And, response data from polls and Q&A can inform what types of revisions need to be made to the course in the future.
  2. Gauge understanding: A quick poll is an effective post-assignment activity to gauge students’ understanding or opinion of the assignment. The feedback from a poll like this could inform additional learning resources.
  3. Overcome learning barriers: Use a Q&A forum or poll to pose a question that will provide a clue for students on where to begin, kick off an assignment, or to help them overcome barriers for a more difficult assignment. This can be particularly effective at grabbing students’ attention.
  4. Make polls a part of online discussions: If polls are integrated as part of your online course discussion boards, you can give students the opportunity to launch their own polls — helping them gather important feedback from fellow course participants that is sure to spur ongoing discussion.
  5. Let students flag a question: Set up Q&A boards so students can answer each others’ questions; let it stay up all term and give students the opportunity to flag certain questions so instructors can provide clarification. This helps avoid repeated questions from students, shares information in one place, and supports peer interaction.

Chat Tools for 1:1 and Small Group Collaboration

Student participation, as a significant indicator of learning, has been investigated from various perspectives. In a recent study, online chat data in an online course indicated that 89 percent of chat participation involved meaningful interactions, revealing that active online chat participation led to better engagement.

Online chat tools can create a space where students can interact and talk with one another. It can be a public space where all messages can be seen by members of the chat, and at the same time, most applications have a private feature so that students or instructors can discuss one-on-one. Chat has some very clear benefits:

  • Easy and instant: Chat gives an opportunity to provide additional information, or last-minute announcements. It’s a fast and easy way to communicate. Chat among students also creates better efficiency in online courses.
  • Give students a voice: Sometimes a course can feel like a one-way street for students. Chat enables multi-directional communication in real time, and gives students an opportunity to ask questions or share perspective with other chat participants. This is especially important for naturally shy students.

How to use chat to facilitate collaboration

Using chat in your courses can be an effective way to facilitate student collaboration in online learning.

  1. Set up chat for small groups – One of the great things about chat is that it allows you to use multiple chats. Set up small groups of students to work on project assignments and discuss particular topics.
  2. Enable 1:1 peer reviews: Chat allows you to focus one-on-one conversations between students, so you can assign peer review sessions without students ever even meeting in person. In those chats, students can decide how and when they’ll work together.
  3. Create another opportunity for instructors & students to engage: Certain chat tools are directly accessible from the online discussion and other course tools. This means students can easily engage with other members of their class in real time without searching across multiple applications. Plus, presence indicators can allow a student or instructor to quickly scan for other students who may be online to check in or start a conversation.

Aside from collaboration, the ability to keep in touch with classmates also fosters camaraderie between the students, which goes a long way toward creating course community and improving engagement.

If you’re selecting a chat tool for your course, you’ll want to make sure that tool is similar in look, feel, and the capabilities of mobile texting. It’s the most familiar mode of communication to students. You’ll also want to make sure it’s connected to the other online collaboration tools you use in your course, like the online annotation tool and discussion boards; otherwise, students will leave the course to chat elsewhere — creating a risky opportunity for students to disengage with course material.

Phew! That’s a lot of tools, a lot to keep track of, and a lot of potential barriers for students and instructors. Now wouldn’t it be ideal if you could use just one app to replace all of these different tools? One with all of these functions built-in, connected to one another, and seamlessly integrated with your LMS — collaboration in online learning would be a lot easier.

One Online Collaboration Tool for Students

The bottom line is that having access to the right online collaboration tools for students is paramount to effective online learning — and being able to effectively facilitate collaboration among students online will make or break your students’ level of engagement. As the popularity of online learning continues to rise, choosing technology that is inclusive of different learners’ styles and purposefully designed to build social connection is more important than ever.

To do all of this, some institutions rely on a variety of disconnected online collaboration tools for education, some of which aren’t fully integrated with the LMS — creating additional barriers for instructors and making it more difficult to take full advantage of a tool’s capability.

Harmonize is a suite of online collaboration tools for education that integrate seamlessly with your LMS to increase student engagement. It’s everything an instructor needs to increase student engagement and promote inclusive learning, while saving time and eliminating manual tasks. If you’re interested in seeing how Harmonize improves student engagement, let’s connect here.

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