Student Collaboration in the Online Classroom

Encouraging student collaboration is one of the best ways of helping students learn about each other and from each other.  Collaboration in the online classroom can take many forms, but often will involve group work to teach one another while the instructor can serve as the “guide on the side”.

Ideas for an Online Class

Here are a few ideas to get started with student collaboration in an online class, including technology-related ideas:


Podcasting is a popular method of communication and entertainment today, with many different podcasts ranging from news & politics to fictional content, and much more.  Podcasting can also be leveraged with a class as a collaborative project, allowing students to have a conversation about a given topic.  Each topic used could have students develop higher order critical thinking skills, and can also be used in a variety of ways to make a class fun and engaging.

Collaborative documents and presentations

Asking students to work together to present concepts to the online classroom is an effective way of adding collaboration to student interactions.  Many instructors may find this activity to be more difficult in an online classroom as they and the students do not have the benefit of interaction within the same room.  In this regard, it becomes necessary for students to use tools that allow for collaborative development to enable them to work together.  Several companies provide free use of their tools to allow students to collaboratively craft documents, presentations, case studies, and more.  Students can be given the option of assembling their own groups online, or can be pre-assigned.  Students should also be given the opportunity to communicate and craft their work in the way that is most convenient for them.


Debates among students are a great way of reviewing all aspects of a topic.  Debates are often used to discuss concepts such a medical issues, historical decisions, political and/or societal questions, and more.  In many cases the class is broken up into two or more teams, each handling a specific position on a question.  Students on each team must review content related to their question and define the reasoning of their positon.  Students ultimately debate the differing aspects of the question, leading to an increase in their critical thinking skillset.

The setup of a debate in an online classroom is different than in a face-to-face classroom.  Students can be divided into groups using system tools, but must communicate with one another outside of those groups to have an effective debate.  Debates can occur using video tools, or can occur through a discussion board with each member properly stating their group’s stance.

As a reminder, debates can also happen in quick order, particularly when using current topics.  All debates need a level of structure and rules to prevent tangential discussions or discussions that may cause classroom discord.

Social media conversations

As many of today’s students make use of social media, it can offer instructors the opportunity to engage students outside of the learning management system.  For example, students can work under a hashtag (typically associated with the course, determined by instructor) on Facebook or Twitter to discuss a class topic, engage in a conversation, or contribute material to a course.  In certain classes, students may use their social media accounts to discuss topics of relevance that can be brought to a larger online class discussion.

Technology to Help

Here are a few tools that may help enhance student collaboration through technology:

Anchor for group podcasting

Anchor is a great tool for students to collaborate in creating their own podcasts for class assignments. Its interface is designed to be easy to use with minimal/no training.  Anchor works through any computer web browser, via iPhone/iPad and Android app.

Anchor’s best feature for education is the ability to record a podcast with others remotely. Each user can use the device of their choice, allowing them to invite their classmates to a common podcast recording.

For more information on Anchor, check out our post on using Anchor, or visit the Anchor website.

Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides for collaborative editing

Google’s suite of productivity tools were built with collaboration in mind.  Each tool allows for multiple users to edit a document, tracking changes based on each user.  When used in concert with the Collaborations tool within Canvas, an instructor would also gain access as a means of reviewing student progress.  Once a group project is completed with a Google productivity tool, it can be shared or embedded into Canvas for review by other students.

For more information on Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides, check out the Google Docs about page.  For more information on using Google Docs in concert with Collaborations, check out the Canvas Guide on creating a Google Docs collaboration as an instructor.

TimelineJS for interactive tools, plus others from Knight Lab

TimelineJS, by Northwestern University’s Knight Lab, is an easy-to-use tool for designing beautiful interactive timelines.  Academic institutions, news media, review websites, sports websites, among many others, have used the tool.

TimelineJS leverages a Google Sheet, which can be shared among multiple students to add information.  The sheet allows for entering dates, descriptions, images, video, and other elements.  The end product is an interactive timeline that can be embedded in a Canvas discussion and shared with a class.

For more information about TimelineJS, check out our post on using TimelineJS, or visit the TimelineJS website.

While taking a look at TimelineJS, consider taking a look at other projects from Northwestern University’s Knight Lab.  Many of their tools can easily be used for student collaboration, or just to bring more interactivity to an online class.

Questions?  We can help!

Have questions about instruction, course design, teaching methods, technology to help, or more?  Please contact the Center for Teaching & Learning through our contact form or by phone at (708) 974-5347.


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