Digital Discussions & Collaboration

During an early personalized learning unit last year, I was intrigued by the idea of finding new ways to provide students with choice and autonomy when it came to choice-novel discussions. Those conversations had previously been student-led, so to extend our practices, my goal for choice with discussions focused on promoting students taking that conversation out of the classroom, holding an academic, Socratic conversation anywhere, anytime, through any medium (so long as I could still grade it).

To some, that might sound crazy, but to me, isn’t that the ultimate goal?!?!

At that time, our course was already in the habit of holding what we still call graded discussions, and those conversations, typically of six students or less per group, are held simultaneously in the classroom for a set period of time, say 20-minutes. Each group records the audio from their conversation, and that audio file is then sent to the teacher who uses it to assess/grade each participant’s contributions to the discussion.

Okay so for context, in my prior experiences with personalized learning, I had begun to provide learners with, let’s say, six assignments at a time to complete, and they would progress through those six pieces in an order and at a pace that was unique to them. This meant discussions could be held at any point in time, but again, always in the classroom. This time around, I told students they could hold their discussion outside of the classroom so long as I received something from them to evaluate for grades.

Well at first, students simply used this opportunity to hold audio conversations either during open class periods or before or after school. That was until one student asked if their group could hold their conversation at a coffee shop during the evening. I told her that so long as the parents knew about it and also knew that this was their choice versus completing it in class, I had no problem with that idea. The next day, she came to class with invitations she had made, inviting her group to the coffee shop for their discussion.


Suddenly, learning had become a social event – something to look forward to attending. To me, that was a major win!

By the end of the next unit, other students began to get more creative and seek out additional avenues for holding discussions on their own time. One group submitted a transcript of a Today’sMeet conversation they had conducted online. Another group, lamenting that they couldn’t meet up at a coffee shop in the evenings because they couldn’t yet drive themselves, decided to create personal Google accounts in order to hold a Google Hangout conversation that they recorded and then turned in to me. They told me that they loved being able to have their conversation remotely from the comforts of their own homes.

And even better, I’ve heard from several of them since, and that experience sparked an interest in not just holding discussions but also finding ways to leverage technology to allow them to effectively collaborate outside of the school day as well.

Once again, student-led choice empowered learners to take ownership of their learning, which led to intrinsic motivation and topic exploration in a way that felt less like work and more like a team effort to learn and improve.

Flash forward to this year, that experience led me to include a Digital Discussions & Collaboration station in the tech session portion of our district’s day-long, personalized learning training. However, despite my passion for the topic, I’m sad to say that it is one of the least frequented stations in the set. And yet, I would argue that its content might be the most important for supporting learners as they progress into Stage 2 and 3 personalized environments. So to defend that opinion of mine, here are my top three reasons why educators should add digital discussion and collaboration tools to their teaching repertoire.

  • Learning is often social: Familiar with Vygotsky’s Social Learning Theory (1962)? While I’m not here to push 60-year-old theory, the premise is still valid in a large number of scenarios – learning almost always happens through dialogue and collaborative efforts. Today, we have an abundance of social media avenues, programs, and apps that can create on-demand opportunities for social learning, but those areas are grossly underutilized in our classroom practices. Educators across the globe have leveraged things like Twitter, Snapchat, and Voxer to learn from one another through a digital and social learning space – shoot, it’s likely how you arrived at this blog. We need to be more intentional about guiding our learners towards utilizing these digital learning spaces as opportunities to learn from one another, through both constructive and reflective academic conversations.
  • Millenials prefer to learn from their peers: 80% Gen Z learners reported that they prefer peer-to-peer learning and collaborative study sessions, with 60% pointing to its being an invaluable opportunity to share ideas and perspectives. Enough said.
  • Digital collaboration empowers learners to utilize tech during the process of learning: So in education, tech is largely incorporated in one of four capacities – one, for assessment and data; two, for learners to develop a digital media product to demonstrate understanding; three, for delivery of instructional content; and four, for efficiently managing the workflow for resources. Now, all of those are essential and significant tech benefits – my goal here is not to create a hierarchy – but I don’t believe that any of those tech pieces are as integral a part of the process of learning as platforms that students can take ownership of for the purpose of collaboration and discussion.

Valuing those tenets, our training promotes the following apps and programs for our Digital Discussions & Collaboration station. And just to fully support our educators, we even include a rubric (a personal fav of mine) for grading academic discussions. Here are the handouts we share with our educators.



I hope this post if nothing else got you thinking about encouraging your learners to find tech to use in this way. Learning to take part in digital discussions and collaborations are an essential skill for our students in their future.

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