Sunday, August 16, 2020

Strategies to Foster Discourse and Collaboration in Remote Learning Environments

The past couple of months have been challenging for educators, to say the least. However, in the midst of it all, there have been opportunities to take a critical lens to practice in the efforts to effectively pivot to a remote world and successfully implement hybrid learning models in the near term.  No matter the current focus, changes implemented today will pave the way for ushering in more personalized approaches that focus on high-agency strategies as schools settle into a new normal.

Let’s focus on the short term.  For many schools, especially here in the United States, the school year has been pushed back, or students will begin remotely. Even for the schools that have started face-to-face, COVID-19 could force an abrupt change of course. Thus, there is a pressing need to develop and implement pedagogically-sound strategies that work in a remote environment.  I recently facilitated two intensive virtual workshop days with educators from the Shaler Area School District in Pennsylvania.  The series will conclude with a third day in a few weeks. First off, they were a fantastic group to work with virtually.  The dialogue, openness to new ideas, and willingness to take risks was apparent each day.  What made it even better was how much I learned from the experience.

One of the main challenges with remote learning has been student engagement, something I addressed in a recent post, where I provided six elements to consider. As I planned out my activities for the two days, I really wanted to create a meaningful experience that included numerous opportunities for discourse and collaboration. Using Zoom breakout rooms and an array of digital tools (Padlet, Linoit, AnswerGarden, Mentimeter, GoSoapBox, YoTeach!, Google Forms, Thinglink) interactivity was extensive. You can also use Google Meet to create breakout rooms in Google Classroom (learn more HERE). 

When designing lessons for learners here are some tips based on what I learned:

  • Establish behavior and conduct norms
  • Mute everyone during synchronous instruction to start. I have found this to be extremely beneficial in setting the tone and attentive behavior.
  • Have an interactive ready to go every 10 – 15 minutes
  • Add the question prompt or task in the chatbox (I just copy and paste it from my slide deck)
  • Unmute everyone and then place them randomly into breakout rooms.
  • Provide regular updates to students by broadcasting messages to all rooms
  • Remind students that there is an “ask for help” button (top left). This is a great way to combat cyberbullying or to respond to group questions.
  • Jump into rooms to monitor.
  • Upon closing the breakout rooms mute the entire class again
  • Provide a digital tool for all kids to share their responses to the question discussed or task completed.
  • Encourage ongoing dialogue and questions using the chatbox.
  • Encourage the use of earbuds or headsets if you are managing both face-to-face and remote learners at the same time. 

Collaboration during synchronous lessons is crucial to keeping kids engaged. It also sets the stage for structured cooperative learning activities that could occur live or asynchronously as part of remote blended learning. Below are some of the most common strategies I use to help educators implement remote learning using the tips above.

  • Think - Pair - Share (in a remote situation it would be think, randomly group in a breakout room, and share)
  • Turn and Talk
  • Jigsaw (check out this blog post if you want to see how I implemented this strategy using a digital tool)
  • Station Rotation
  • Brainstorming (HERE are a list of some great free tools)

I need to give huge should out to Esther Park. She really took the virtual breakout room to a whole new level. Below are her tweet and associated image. 

I made breakout room choice doors where Ss will "go" to during their work time. We're using Google Meet & I plan to link different Meet links to each door so students can collaborate, work alone, or get extra help. Honoring differences & personalizing instruction! 


It is essential to be intentional about planning for discourse and collaboration in any remote learning lesson or experience, just like we would in a face-to-face setting.  Students desperately miss and need interaction with their peers to create some sense of normalcy while increasing attentive behavior and engagement in the learning process.

Be sure to check out my entire #remotelearning series. 


  1. Great ideas for virtual engagement. I really like the idea of a jigsaw, and will use that strategy in my virtual classroom.

  2. I really loved the ideas presented in this article! The article prompted me to explore the creation of breakout rooms for my students.