Types of student-student interaction

Nearly all online courses involve students interacting in some way with one another. However, the amount and type of student-student interaction varies greatly across online courses. Students may do little more than introduce themselves and share a space for course-related questions, or they may be required to communicate and collaborate on nearly every aspect of the course, with assignments and assessments being carried out in groups. Most online courses fall in-between, such that students complete many learning activities on their own, but are required to interact with one another to achieve at least some of the course learning outcomes, with participation contributing to their final grade.

Student interaction in online courses can be broken down into three basic types:

  • Social and content-based interaction: discussions and co-learning
  • Assessment-based interaction: group assignments and projects
  • Presentations and peer assessments

Social and content-based interaction: Discussions and co-learning

Discussions have been a key component of online courses from the start; in fact, it was the introduction of internet-based web forums that formed the first major innovation in online course design. Today, most discussion activities in online courses still take place in web forums (also referred to as discussion forums) that function in the same basic way as their early counterparts: the facilitator or course authors provide instructions, and students post asynchronously, contributing to a discussion topic in the course.

In addition to the traditional asynchronous exchange of text, modern online courses often feature other tools that allow students to communicate in different ways, for example:

  • threaded asynchronous video and audio discussions,
  • student blogs,
  • the use of social media platforms for online courses

These tools affect the nature of student discussion in many important ways, yet the heart of student discussion online remains the same: sharing ideas using digital media rather than face-to-face discussions.

Regardless of the medium, social and content-based discussions all involve students responding to a given prompt, exercise, or assignment in conversation with one another. What defines a “discussion” in our usage is that, for these types of interactions, the expected outcome of student interaction is the interaction itself. Seminar discussions are a classic example of this type of learning activity, but as you will quickly observe there is a wide range of discussion styles and activities in use for online education today.

The purpose of discussion interactions may be content-oriented, purely social, or may mix the two. In general, purely social discussions take place early in the life of an online course, while content-based discussions tend to take shape a little later on, once student have more knowledge under their belt. We will discuss these two types of discussion in more detail in the next two sections of this unit.

Assessment-based interaction: Group assignments and projects

If the intended result of social and content-based interactions are the interactions themselves, then we can think of group assignments and projects as their mirror image. In a group assignment, students are asked to work together to carry out a specific task or to create or produce something together which will be marked and will form a component of each individual student's final grade. Whereas a content-based discussion starts with defined input (such as a seminar question or discussion post requirements), assessment-based interactions focus on a defined output and allow students to make many or all of their own decisions about how to accomplish the specified goal. While student-student interaction may be an important aspect of a group assignment, this interaction does not take place for its own sake alone, but rather it occurs in the service of the overall project.

Not all online courses contain group assignments, but many of them do. We will talk more in a later section about some of the challenges and opportunities of online group work with respect to student engagement and your role as a facilitator.

Presentations and peer assessments

The final major type of student-student interaction in online courses involves students sharing individual work with one another for feedback or peer review. Such interactions may ask students to share written work or other assignments or may require students to create one or more presentations for other students to read, watch, or listen to before responding with comments.

Many digital tools are available today that students can use to create presentations and share content in online courses, along with an equally large group of strategies and tools for helping them review one another’s work. Peer assessment itself can take a range of forms from simple comments on the work of others, to complex activities involving detailed rubrics, to peer feedback in response to peer feedback, and many things in-between.

Not all online courses involve peer review or peer assessment, but the popularity of these assignments seems to be growing in online higher education.

Check and reflect

Now is a good time to assess the types of student-student interactions that are planned for your online course. If you have access to your course or course syllabus, take a few minutes to look through the assignments, activities, and/or course modules. Try to make a detailed list of all the situations in which students will be asked to interact with one another. Record your list of expected student interactions and keep it handy when you begin facilitating. Below are just some examples to help you identify areas of student-student interaction; there may be others in your own course. If there are some strategies that you'd really like to try make a note for yourself in your Facilitator Checklist.

Table 5.1: Types of student-student interaction and associated activities
Social/content-basedAssessment-basedPeer assessment

Various forum types:

  • Introductions
  • Learning support (Q&A)
  • Topic discussions
  • Seminar discussions
  • Social chat

Other discussions and communication:

  • Threaded video discussions
  • Video or audio posts to course forums
  • Synchronous video or audio discussions
  • Social media
  • Interactive document collaboration
  • Emails, texts, and phone calls between students (typically not required but often take place informally

Major group projects like:

  • Final papers
  • Reports
  • Studies
  • Reviews
  • Case studies
  • Software or coding projects
  • Group presentations

Types of group presentations:

  • Video presentations
  • Narrated slides or PowerPoints
  • Audio presentations
  • Public-facing presentations
  • Foreign language presentations

Other projects:

  • Short films and videos
  • Recorded role-playing scenarios
  • Creative and art projects
  • Podcasts
  • Blogs
  • Wikis

Peer review or assessment can be formal or informal, and it can be assigned as a part of nearly any course activity, using a wide variety of tools. Some examples for individual or group work included:

  • Feedback on written work
  • Providing peer feedback using a rubric
  • Feedback on presentations
  • Assessment of peers’ participation in the course discussions (usually confidential)
  • Reviews of other reviews (giving feedback on how helpful another student’s feedback was)
  • Assessment of other group members’ participation in group projects (usually confidential)