Collaborating online

Strategies for collaborating online and getting the most out of discussions and webinars.

Discussion boards and webinars provide an interactive learning environment where you can clarify and extend what you learn from subject material and develop your communication skills.

They can be stimulating and a lot of fun, but for this to happen, everyone needs to contribute. As with face-to- face communication, it’s important to find a way to express your views and question those of others in a respectful way, as this helps to develop your understanding and critical thinking.

Understand expectations

Find out if your participation in online forums and webinars is compulsory, and if so, how it will be assessed. For discussion forums, find out the required frequency, due date, length, focus and tone of posts.

Prepare

The more preparation you do, the more actively you’ll be able to participate. There will usually be prescribed and/or recommended readings to be completed before you engage in online discussion. It may not always be possible to read everything on the reading list in time, so a good method is to read all the prescribed reading thoroughly and briefly review the others.

When you’re reading:

  • Think about how the reading relates to the topic of the discussion and the main points presented in the subject materials.
  • Think about similarities or differences between the texts and try to form your own opinions.
  • Note down any questions and comments you have.

Participate actively

The easiest way to participate is often to add to the existing discussion. You can do this in a range of ways. For example, you can:

  • Agree with what someone has stated.
  • Ask the contributor to clarify what they mean.
  • Ask a specific question related to what was stated.
  • Ask for or provide an example for the point under discussion.
  • Disagree (politely) with what someone has stated and give reasons for your opinion.
  • Respond to a question that is asked of the group.
  • Share relevant resources or links.

Consider your audience

Online communication can be challenging, as you don’t have the same range of verbal and visual cues (voice, body language etc.) to contextualise your words and check your message was received as intended. You may not be able to see looks of confusion, agreement or even frustration. Below are some strategies to help you communicate effectively and avoid misunderstandings.

Be objective: question the idea, not the person

Draw on evidence, examples or reasoning to explain your point and try not to use emotional or subjective language. Compare the examples below.

Example One: You seem confused about the relationship between obesity and socio-economic status.

Example Two: I’m not following your idea – could you please explain how you understand the relationship between obesity and socio-economic status?

Example 1 may feel like a personal attack – the writer is saying “you don’t understand”. Example 2 is more objective because the writer asks for clarification of the idea – the writer is saying “help me to understand”.

Use simple language

Use words that most people would know and that are easily understand. Your ideas can be complex, but your language shouldn’t be. For example:

  • Tried rather than endeavoured
  • Use rather than utilise
  • Explain rather than elucidate

Be specific

Relate your comments directly to particular ideas or posts and avoid words that are vague or have multiple meanings. Compare the specificity of two examples below.

Example One: “Great point: it really highlights the issues we’ve discussed”.

Example Two: “Great example for this week’s topic on reducing social isolation in elderly populations, Lee. Using avatars to help them connect with each other is a really interesting idea.”

Example One is quite vague, could be seen as a bit rushed and relies on the reader going back to read the previous post to make sense of it (What point? Which issue?).

Example Two is much clearer as it specifies what in particular was good (the example), and what the topic was (reducing social isolation in elderly populations). Using Lee’s name also personalises the entry, helping us to know exactly whose post we’re referring to.

Be concise

Wordy sentences and posts can be difficult to read. Try:

Replacing longer phrases with single words

  • Information provided by responses indicates... [5 words]
  • Responses indicate... [2 words]

Using strong verbs, rather than nouns

  • This paper provides an evaluation of Gaspar’s framework. [8 words]
  • This paper evaluates Gaspar’s framework [4 words]

Using active, rather than passive, voice

  • An analysis of user behaviour was conducted. [7 words]
  • We analysed user behaviour. [4 words]

Be coherent and cohesive

Structure your response logically and consider the flow between ideas and posts carefully.

  • Refer to other writers by name
  • Repeat the point you’re linking back to
  • Highlight the relationships between ideas.

Example

I completely agree with both Alex and Jia’s argument that we need to include more indigenous knowledge in curriculum. To support this point, I’d like to share a great example of this from my practise in....

Legend: Name, Point, Relationship

Allow opportunity for interaction

Although your response should be well thought out, it should also allow and encourage others to respond. If it is uninteresting, or allows little room for questioning or comment, then you’re unlikely to spark an interesting debate.

Nervous about contributing?

It’s normal to feel a little nervous about publishing your thoughts and ideas for all to see, especially if you’re still grappling with new ideas and concepts. Just remember that while it might sound cliché, there are no silly questions.

Try to post something early on, even if it’s simply to introduce yourself or agree with something someone else has posted. The longer you wait to post, the harder it will get. As discussions build, you might find that the ideas become more nuanced and complex, making it harder to contribute something new or interesting.

A strategy is to log in early each week with one or two comments or questions already prepared to contribute to the topic. As you become more confident you can be more spontaneous with your comments.

Netiquette

There are some clear differences between online and face-to-face communication, but our behaviours should show a similar level of respect. Behave the same way online as you would face-to-face.

  • Be careful with humour and sarcasm.
  • Respect others’ points of view, even if you don’t agree.
  • Be aware of cultural differences, without making over- generalisations.
  • Be polite; acknowledge responses to your posts and respond to others’ posts.
  • Never post in anger – if you’re upset with something someone has written, take some time to think about how you can respond objectively, without emotion.

Final tip

Developing your online collaboration skills will help you to connect with your peers, study effectively and efficiently and prepare for your future careers. It gives you an opportunity to:

  • Practise/demonstrate your critical thinking and problem-solving skills
  • Develop your interpersonal communication skills (both written and verbal)
  • Learn by considering others’ perspectives
  • Test your ideas and understanding on other students.

Follow the four key tips above and you’ll be an effective online collaborator in no time.

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