Many education theories from Community of Practice to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development emphasise the importance of interaction between students as part of the learning process – how do we activate and support this in an online setting?

Social learning and interaction

Ever noted as the Achilles heel of online and distance education, social interaction is certainly a challenge in this space. However, we already do much of our social interaction online via social media platforms, it only seems reasonable that in 2020 we are better placed than ever before to incorporate social interaction into our online teaching.

Live video conferencing via Zoom and Teams has come to the forefront as the primary mode of teaching online, and in many ways a live video link is fantastic for social interaction, as we can see and hear each other. But it shouldn’t be the whole picture; Zoom fatigue is real and if you consider the ways that we socially engage with one another online more broadly, text, images and other asynchronous modes of interaction are much more prevalent.

5 student interaction strategies

Collaborative Code of Conduct

Online interaction can be fraught with unpleasant interactions, just open Twitter to confirm this. How can we encourage social and potentially personal exchanges whilst also offering a safe learning space? Imposing a set of rules is one way to try and accomplish this, but what seems safe to you may not be for some students coming from a different set of experiences. By asking students to collaboratively decide upon what is okay, what is encouraged and what shouldn’t occur through a discussion forum they are being given ownership and agency in the online learning space which will hopefully result in students being more empowered to communicate and interact.

Lecture bridging and back channels

The whispered conversations in the lecture theatre and the discussions that spill out into the corridor and lunch table afterwards are missing in fully online teaching. By providing a discussion forum specifically for ‘back channel’ conversations you are providing an approved outlet form comments, questions and other interactions that let students know they are not alone. By asking students during the lecture to post one thing they find interesting and one thing they don’t understand, you will have a strong starting point for tutorial discussions and tutors will have a better idea of what sections to focus upon.

Reading groups

Small reading groups can be a great way to get students interacting and interpreting ideas. By using a discussion forum students can encounter and contribute their reflections and interpretations to the readings in their own time and at their own pace. You can up the flipped learning stakes and ask students to write a collaborative canvas page or WIKI explaining and expanding on the article for the rest of the class.

Why so serious?

Humour and low stakes interactions build our confidence in relating to each other, paving the way for greater understanding, tolerance and empathy. Building playful activities into class time may seem frivolous but could pay dividends when students are more relaxed and familiar with one another. For ideas on how play might be implemented in an online context see Alisa Percy’s experience at Dr Maarten Koeners’ playful workshop or just play dress-ups.

Prompt interaction by saying hi

By asking students to post an introduction to themselves, reflect on a personal experience or make a case for a conviction they hold, you are cracking open a window that reveals that name and student number as a real person. Students for the most part want to connect with their peers, by giving them explicit opportunities to reveal themselves and respond to each other you are making this much easier. Learning is social and you’re the host of the party.

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