Fostering Interaction


Traditional online course models most often incorporate discussion as the main vehicle to have students interact with the teacher, other students, and the content. These discussion activities can be extremely powerful and lead to all sorts of positive outcomes – especially building of community and deep engagement with content. But they are typically only practical in small cohort courses (20-30 students). In these small courses, the teacher is a key player, by their timely presence, and contribution and shaping of the ongoing discussions. Unfortunately, this kind of model does not scale well to larger courses. The sense of community often doesn’t form in large group discussions when anonymity is more possible, the teacher’s time and effort is finite, and the teacher can’t realistically be present enough to foster the evolving community and discussion. We can try unmonitored discussions and try to use participation marks to encourage participation by all students, but having many students only seeking participation marks often limits the power and depth of these discussions – they often fall short of their potential.

We need to consider other more scalable options to foster interaction. There are three types of interaction to consider – Teacher-Student, Student-Content, and Student-to-Student.


First, let us consider Teacher-Student interactions. We probably need to accept that in very large courses Teacher-to-Student interactions will more be in broadcast mode than the back and forth conversational dialogue possible in smaller classes. In large courses that have moved online, we will have to carefully structure interactions so the faculty member is not overwhelmed by individual student’s requests. The faculty member’s time and attention are a limited resource so we should focus on interactions with many students at a time, if possible. It is a question of how to get some feedback from students without getting so much feedback that it is overwhelming.

Collaborate Polling

Collaborate Ultra has a built-in quick polling function that lets you quickly build multiple-choice or yes/no questions, you can then open the question for students to complete, and once class has responded, you can then display the results. This can be a prior knowledge probe, feedback on learning progress, or a great starting point for a discussion. Unfortunately, you can not pre-build polling questions in Collaborate. They must be built on the fly. But you can have a PowerPoint slide with the question and options ready, so building on the fly is then reasonable. If you have been an iClicker user, this would be a way to mimic those interactions, unfortunately, individual student participation can not be tracked. You can learn more about using polling on Blackboard’s Collaborate Help Website. 

Unmonitored Discussions

Discussions are difficult to actively manage in large courses, but you can use unmonitored discussion forums. You want to foster students answering other student questions, if possible. You are not intensely watching forums or interacting with students, just periodically dropping in and doing a high level scan of the discussion. By bringing some unanswered questions and interesting ideas from discussions forums to the next online class you are signaling the students that you find their discussions in the forum important enough to spend some of your precious time reviewing student comments. Teacher attention is a motivator for students to participate, but the unmonitored nature of the forums and large number of students can make participation variable. There can be issues with unmonitored discussion with the lack of community (where anonymity is the norm) and the teacher does not realistically have the time to foster the sprawling large group discussion.

Minute Papers

You can get some quick feedback from students by having students submit short Minute Paper quizzes in Canvas after a class. In a F2F class, a minute paper occurs during the last few minutes of a class. The teacher simply asks students to get a blank sheet of paper out and answer some basic questions like – What are the 3 most important things you learned today? or What is still unclear for you? or Write an exam question you might expect from today’s content. We are just trying to get a glimpse into the student’s current level of understanding. You don’t mark these. You just quickly scan the submissions to discern patterns, recurring questions, or interesting insights. You can bring a few of these questions and insights to the next class for discussion. This kind of activity transfers well to online since you can easily follow a synchronous session with a short Minute Paper quiz. You usually provide a small participation mark for completing the quiz (so minimal increase in marking load).


Next, we consider Student-to-Content interactions. You need to choose between a synchronous or asynchronous mode of content delivery (or can do a mix). Both modes have their own particular mix of advantages and disadvantages. What is right for you, your students, and the course will vary. There have been many student comments for the preference for live sessions. Students have been commenting that it is easier to watch an hour-long live session than an hour-long recording.

Recorded Lectures

Asynchronous delivery often involves canned videos of lectures. These are often done as voice-over PowerPoint with screen recording software like Camtasia. Recorded lectures are less anxiety-provoking for the teacher since you can do multiple takes and are more immune to those last-minute technology glitches. You do lose some of the immediacy of live, synchronous classes. Recorded lectures can be useful when your schedule makes being available at regular class times difficult, as they can be pre-packaged and posted in advance. If you want to create these, we recommend using Camtasia software that is free to all students, staff, and faculty at UBC. With recorded lectures, there are possibilities to embed questions and sophisticated interactions into the video stream using tools like Articulate Storyline. Contact the Centre for Instructional Support if you want to learn more about these Articulate possibilities.

Live Sessions

With synchronous (live) delivery methods using tools like Collaborate Ultra or Zoom, there is the compelling immediacy of live performance, and good opportunities to seek and respond to student questions in real-time. Students have been commenting that it is easier to watch an hour-long live session than an hour-long recording. The ability to respond to questions in real-time is an important advantage. Often the simplest approach to gather questions is to encourage students to type their questions into the chat window and then you periodically stop to review (or have a TA monitor) the chat stream and answer a few of the most pertinent questions. You can have some moments of silence at the end of a segment to give students time to think and post some pertinent questions in the chat window. You typically don’t answer all questions, just those that will best advance student understanding and help them get the most from the lesson. This allows you to better adjust instruction “on the fly” to better serve students’ immediate learning needs. This immediacy of live sessions can also be a disadvantage when technology glitches can be anxiety-provoking and disrupt the flow. Thankfully Collaborate has been very stable and Applied Science faculty have been reporting very few glitches. These live sessions can also be easily recorded and later reviewed by students.

Chalk and Talk

If you are a “chalk and talk” teacher there are a few options to consider to help your teaching online.

Do document camera recordings. The ELMO document cameras in most UBC classrooms have an SD card port and USB port. You can easily record document camera videos directly to either the SD or USB ports. Once you have captured the videos, you can edit them in Camtasia, and then post them directly in Canvas. Contact the Centre for Instructional Support if you want to learn more about this possibility. See YouTube to get a general idea and also Google search for the manual for specific ELMO model to get the specific directions.

A number of interesting “hacks” have surfaced where teachers have used their smartphone camera to build an ad hoc document camera. People are live streaming into Collaborate and Zoom using this kind of setup. It is often as simple as joining the session from your phone and laptop at the same time. Using the laptop to send audio and the phone to capture video. As the moderator of the session on the laptop, you can promote your phone to Presenter, which will broadcast the video to everyone. All that is then required is a method to hold the phone above the document you are writing on. People use a variety of objects from tripods, to lamps, to stacks of tins to hold their phone. There are lots of videos that show you how to do this on YouTube [just search “smart phone doc camera”].

You can also use an iPad to annotate existing documents or do whiteboard sessions in Zoom. There isn’t a really good way to do this in Collaborate Ultra but works easily in Zoom. Just download the Zoom iPad app from the app store and launch Zoom. Then I was able to application share and to share iPad screen and annotate PDFs easily. I have an apple pencil which makes it quite easy. The Zoom iPad app doesn’t do recording – so you would need to login into Zoom from your laptop to start recording the iPad (iPad with presenter privileges).
There is another way to get your iPad connected to Zoom (From Pierre Berube)
      1. You share your iPad screen using a cable (using cable not wifi) during your Zoom meeting and open Goodnotes. At the moment it will not be in presentation mode.
      2. You Quicktime on your computer and select “New Movie Recording” without actually start the recording. Instead, by pressing the little downward arrow next to the recording button, you select your iPad as your “camera”. At the moment Goodnotes will still not be in presentation mode.
      3. Unplug and replug the cable. Your screen sharing will be temporarily interrupted but will restore automatically when you reconnect the cable. When the iPad screen comes back, Goodnotes will be in presentation mode. 
      4. If you want, you can close Quicktime and Goodnotes will stay in presentation mode
There is a lightboard at UBC studios that faculty can book (although it is heavily booked these days). It is quite compelling the chalk and talk videos that can be made with this technology. The downside is that the process is complicated with the need to book in advance, the need a dedicated camera operator, the fact that only short segments can be recorded before the board must be carefully cleaned, and all of this creates multiple video bits that must stitch together in a video editing tool.

Using Quiz Tools More

Often, when I start talking to teachers about using quiz tools within Canvas, the idea gets dismissed because of quizzes reliance on Multiple-Choice Questions (MCQs). This in spite of the fact that Canvas quizzes support many different question formats.

      • Multiple Choice
      • True/False
      • Fill-in-the-Blank
      • Fill-in-Multiple-Blanks
      • Multiple Answers
      • Multiple Drop-down (can be used for Likert scale)
      • Matching
      • Numerical Answer
      • Formula (simple formula and single variable)
      • Essay
      • File Upload

I need to make a few important comments about MCQ’s. MCQs are often unfairly described as only being able the test low-level thinking like recall and rudimentary understanding. This is very wrong! It is very possible to create MCQs that require higher-level thinking. Part of the inaccurate perception stems from our own poor educational experiences. You can very quickly write many bad MCQs and these are often the quality of questions that we have experienced ourselves. It doesn’t have to be that way. The catch is that good multiple-choice questions are time-consuming to create, but their ease of marking and simple reusability can make this time commitment worthwhile. I encourage you to at least incorporate MCQs into some portion of your tests and exams.

Teachers also will often quickly dismiss Multiple-Choice and Short Answer exams because they believe their course requires extensive hand-written calculation questions to properly assess students’ understanding. But, there are other ways to structure questions besides hand-written to assess this kind of higher-level student understanding. What you want is to induce students to do calculations on the way to a more singular final answer. One of the criticisms of this structure is the inability to see process and award part marks – that is a legitimate criticism, but there are ways to structure the questions to partially address this issue.

Building high-level MCQ from Calculation Question

You can restructure a calculation question into a series of “spot the error” questions that require students to do the calculations and use that information to sort through the presented errors and provide a short text response. What is interesting about “spot the error” questions is you can often tell where a student calculation pathway has gone off the rails by the error they choose – so part/differential marks are possible. You build these kinds of questions by modifying existing questions involving calculations, sketches, or non-text answers in a way that preserves high-level thinking while allowing simple text responses. Thanks to Pete Ostafichuk for this idea and this example.


Finally, we should attempt to foster Student-to-Student interaction.

Peer Review

One way to increase the amount of feedback students get without overloading the instructor is to use student peer review. In peer review, students review and provide feedback on each other’s work. There is peer review functionality built directly into Canvas that lets you anonymously and randomly assign a specific number of peer reviews to each student. Typically each student gets tasked with reviewing 2-3 submissions from their peers. It’s a good idea for the teacher to provide structured questions or a rubric to help students review a peer’s work. There is a bit of trick to the kinds of questions you ask – you want reviewers to provide feedback more than evaluative judgments.

Linda Nilson explains this in her excellent paper, Improving Student Peer Feedback. The following section draws heavily on her work. This is not my work, but have reworked her words a bit, to be more useful for our context. Linda notes that peer review based on judgment-based feedback questions give students too emotionally charged tasks that they are often ill-prepared to do well.

She proposes a different slant to peer feedback questions – ask questions that only ask for a personal judgment or opinion as to that student review of their peer’s work. You are not asking for evaluative judgment, but just their experience during the review.  This lets students at different levels of academic preparation be capable of answering the questions well. The good part is that answering the questions demands that students carefully attend to the details of the work, whether it be a written paper to read, an oral presentation to listen to, or a visual product to experience. Furthermore, if the instructor wishes to grade the peer feedback that students provide, the quality of the answers is quite easy to assess.

Consider how the following don’t ask for an evaluation but ask the student/reader/audience what did it mean to you?

      • Highlight (in color) any passages that you had to read more than once to understand what the writer was saying.
      • Bracket any sentences that you find particularly strong or effective.
      • Underline any sentences that you find particularly weak or repetitive.
      • List below the main points of the paper/speech/project
      • As a member of the intended audience, what questions would you have after reading the paper/listening to the speech?
      • What do you think is the strongest evidence for the writer’s/speaker’s position? Why?
      • What do you think is the weakest evidence for the writer’s/speaker’s position? Why
      1. How to use Peer Reviews in Canvas
      2. How to create Peer Reviews Assignments in Canvas
      3. How to automatically assign Peer Reviews in Canvas

Re-Imagining Classroom Group Activities for Online

For online group activities, we can use Zoom or Collaborate’s breakout room function. With a click of a button, you can randomly distribute a specific number of students to each private breakout rooms where they can discuss and complete activities in these smaller groups. With another click of a button, you can bring all students back to the main room to report. Once back in the main room, there are many options for mechanisms for reporting: you could randomly call on a team to report; you could use the polling functions to gather decisions from all teams, or you could share a whiteboard for teams to report on. The Centre for Instructional Support can provide support during sessions the first time you use this kind of functionality. Contact us at if you want someone to co-pilot with you during your first breakout room session.

[add lesson plan/script for activity session]

Helpful Models for Structuring Online Activities

When we take an existing classroom activity we will need to make some adjustments to make it work better online. Beyond the need to manage the logistics of activity tasking, using breakout room, collecting responses, and managing the discussion, we want to reconfigure the question slightly to make sure the discussion focuses on the salient issues. We do this by constraining the question and deliverables slightly. When we send students into the breakout rooms we want to give them some specific deliverables to produce. This will focus their conversation on those salient topics. This helps when student are brought back to central room – students will have discussed similar topics and made similar judgments within the constraints you have provided. This makes the reporting conversation more engaging for everyone. The constraint could be as simple as make a decision between these options and identify 2 supporting arguments and a counter-argument that will likely be made.

Team-Based Learning has a problem structure model that naturally constrains student work and actually makes the report conversations richer. Some instructors worry that constraints will limit the conversation, but on the contrary – the conversation better focuses on salient issues and the nuances of applying the textbook knowledge to a real-world problem. Check out the article that introduces you to the TBL model – Team-Based Learning Revisited in the Educause Review – Transforming Higher Ed.

Group Collaboration Tools

We are actively searching out tools that we can start using in Fall 2020. We recognize that the Undergraduate Project and Capstone courses, our Master programs, and Student Design teams will need a robust set of tools to replace the F2F interactions that have been the mainstay of these programs.

There are existing tools like the team/group spaces in Canvas, UBC Blogs, and WorkSpace that do provide some rudimentary tools to support group collaboration. We recognize we need better tools to help students have the best experience possible. We have some large constraints on tools that are available for our use. The BC Privacy laws have strict rules on data residency, that has in the past not allowed us to use many cloud-based services that originate in the United States.

The messenger app Slack is becoming available for students this summer to support ongoing student collaboration. 

MS Teams will be available in the fall, what is not clear is which tools will be initially turned on within the MS Teams framework. This is very good news for the long term, but probably can’t be relied on for this fall, since we don’t know the initial roll-out toolset. Once the tool is released I will let you know.