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Inside the Black Box: Understanding Communicative Exchanges in Online Learning Environments

Listen and learn

Listen and learn : Research paper
Roundtable presentation

Thursday, December 3, 12:30–1:15 pm PST (Pacific Standard Time)
Presentation 2 of 3
Other presentations:
Technology Integration in Science Content and Pedagogy Courses With Preservice Teachers
Is UDL a Practical Tool for Improving Undergraduate Online Courses?

Dr. Sara Douglas  
In what ways are online high school students communicating with teachers and peers? This session will reveal findings from a research study that included direct observation of students along with data from educator surveys. Results will shed light on several constraints as well as possible affordances for providing interactive activities.

Audience: Curriculum/district specialists, Teachers, Principals/head teachers
Attendee devices: Devices not needed
Topic: Communication & collaboration
Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: Language arts
ISTE Standards: For Educators:
  • Use collaborative tools to expand students' authentic, real-world learning experiences by engaging virtually with experts, teams and students, locally and globally.
For Students:
Global Collaborator
  • Students use collaborative technologies to work with others, including peers, experts or community members, to examine issues and problems from multiple viewpoints.
For Coaches:
Digital Citizenship
  • Model and promote diversity, cultural understanding and global awareness by using digital age communication and collaboration tools to interact locally and globally with students, peers, parents and the larger community.
Additional detail: Session recorded for video-on-demand

Proposal summary


This study is based on a sociocultural perspective promoting co-creation of knowledge (Vygotsky, 1978). This theory asserts that learning is enhanced in an interactive, collaborative environment. This focus on interactive communication is also highlighted in the 21st Century Skills Framework (Partnership for 21st Century Learning, 2007). In fact, two of the "4C's" in this framework are communication and collaboration.


A mixed-methods design was strategically employed in order to provide a nuanced and comprehensive understanding of student interactions in online learning environments. Quantitative measures were used to tabulate and compare the number and type of interactive occurrences observed. These communicative episodes included class discussions, conferences with teachers, and peer collaborations. Likert-style survey questions posed to online teachers were used to determine the degree to which curricular activities are perceived as valuable and feasible by online teachers.

 Qualitative data was added in order to capture numerous comments and observational data from student participants. In addition, open-ended qualitative survey questions posed to online teachers were aimed at delineating specific affordances and constraints teachers perceive positively or negatively that impact online interactive activities. Individual teacher and student comments were coded and analyzed.

 Participants were recruited by means of purposeful selection. High school students were eligible to participate if they were currently enrolled in a Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) accredited, fully online 9th, 10th, 11th, or 12th grade general education English Language Arts (ELA) course. The online high school’s course content and instruction was provided by a large for-profit Education Management Organization (EMO) (e.g., Connections Academy, Florida Virtual School, or K12 Inc.). Online teachers and advisors received access to the survey if they reportedly taught or advised in an online high school setting within the United States.

 Data was collected through student observations and online teacher surveys. The study began with observation of student participants completing their online coursework, so as to determine how often students were provided an opportunity (and chose to participate) in academic discourse and peer collaboration activities, such as peer editing or teacher-led discussions. Occurrences were tallied using an observation protocol, noting type of interaction (Student-Peer or Student-Teacher), purpose for interaction (Organizational/procedural, Social/motivational, or Instructional), and response level (Closed, Explain/justify, Elaborate/reason, or Synthesize/create), and additional researcher comments. Comments from student participants (provided during and immediately after observations) added further data to address interactive opportunities and activities that may have occurred during the week prior, or between observations.

Additionally, online teachers/advisors provided answers to the study’s research questions via survey responses. An invitation to participate and along with the survey link were posted to groups within the researcher’s network and forwarded to other networks. The body of the survey contained ten questions pertaining to academic discourse and peer collaboration (fully defined); six questions regarding the occurrence, value, and feasibility of these activities utilized a 1-5 Likert scale, while four open-ended questions provided additional insight regarding the affordances and constraints of communicative activities in online courses.


Over the span of approximately one month, five ethnically diverse students were individually observed on three separate occasions (30 minutes each) while completing their general education Fall semester online English coursework (typically progressing though static lecture slides or written homework assignments). The researcher tallied interactions and took detailed field notes of observed behavior and student comments. Results show that opportunities for students to communicate are varied. Nevertheless, opportunities to participate in interactive communicative activities related to their English course were limited while students were offered opportunities to engage with the teacher via calls, texts, or emails, over the entire observation period. Overall, after 15 separate observations, only one student engaged in a dialogic conversation with his teacher (via phone call), while one other contacted the teacher for the answer to a brief question. Students were presented with even fewer opportunities to engage with peers (with just 1 one optional peer collaboration project per semester).

Overall, after 15 separate observations, only one student engaged in a dialogic conversation with his teacher (via phone call), while one other contacted the teacher for the answer to a brief question. While lecture slides often included several embedded “guess, click, and view” type questions, overall, the cognitive complexity of prompts and interactions was low (i.e., closed correct/incorrect responses rather than asking students to reason or elaborate). Other than the few generically-written feedback comments on various assignments, three of the five participants never interacted with their online English teacher over the course of the month-long observational period. Moreover, none of the students engaged in any interaction with course peers.

 Outside of the daily online coursework, alternative opportunities were afforded to students for interaction with others via different channels. One option included the opportunity to participate in supplemental weekly synchronous video lessons, offered weekly with options to participate in live chat supplemental lessons. None of the five students opted to take part in this activity (in fact, none of the participants had joined in the course’s synchronous lessons prior to the study, and all stated they would not participate in the future). Furthermore, although primarily working from home, student participants reported no academic interaction with parents or other family members. A final opportunity for academic discourse or peer collaboration included face-to-face interaction with on-site monitoring teachers and peers during study hall sessions at the participants’ school. Of the 172 hours of support offered to these online students within the observational time frame, just two participants attended for a total of 11 hours. Within that time, students reported that they did not engage in academic discourse with the monitoring teachers or their peers (instead utilizing personal laptops to complete online lessons independently).  

 Survey results (n= 49 online high school educators from across the United States) show that educators believed that students participate a fair amount in academic discourse discussions in their online classes. When teachers were asked about the occurrence of academic discourse in online environments, answers typically fell between “a moderate amount” to “a great deal.” Just 17% of teachers reported that students “never” or “rarely” engaged in academic discourse. Thus there appears to be a clear disconnect between how often these teachers believe academic discourse occurs and how often it actually does. However, most online educators agreed that engagement with peers does not occur very often, with almost 70% answering that online student peer collaboration “never” or “rarely” happened. And yet, the remaining 30% of surveyed teachers thought that online students participated in peer collaboration at least “occasionally” or even “a great deal.” Again, the survey results do not align with reality as witnessed by observing student behavior: In all, there was not one instance of peer collaboration among (or in the time between) the 15 observed lessons.  

 Within online learning environments, educators believe that academic discourse is of greater value and more feasible than peer collaboration activities. To illustrate, on a scale of 1-5, with 1 indicating “not valuable/feasible” and 5 indicating “extremely valuable/feasible,” surveyed teachers seem to value discursive activities (M=4.15) more than peer collaboration (M=3.30). Similarly, educators determined that academic discourse was much more feasible (M=3.88) than peer collaboration (M=3.03) in online school courses. Although students were not formally asked these exact questions, students’ post-observation informal commentary reflected similar (albeit more dramatic) findings. All mentioned that they did not see any value in academic discourse or communicating with peers and indicated that any sort of interactive activity was an added inconvenience and thus not feasible.

 Finally, to obtain additional insight into online course environments, participants were asked to describe specific affordances or constraints for implementing these curricular activities in online learning environments. Teachers repeatedly mentioned that there are specific challenges to overcome for successful integration of meaningful interactive activities within remote and asynchronous learning environments. The largest challenge (cited by teachers regarding academic discourse and peer collaboration activities (cited in almost 50% of the comments) was the lack of student participation. Observed student behavior offers support for this assumption – none of the students chose to interact with peers, and few took the time to contact or converse with teachers. Students claimed they were “too busy” or “didn’t have to do” the interactive activities.

The next largest challenge for teachers is the obstacle of timing and scheduling interactive activities. Both parties (students and teachers) agreed that various time zones, availability, individual student course pacing and progress made both synchronous and asynchronous communicative exchanges difficult. Teachers added that it took a lot of time to plan and conduct interactive activities. Very few teachers commented on technical issues, whereas every student expressed uncertainty regarding laptop compatibility with interactive activities. Finally, curricular issues arose as a problem for a handful of online teachers, with some mentioning that interactions would need to be listed as an academic goal on the course syllabus, which in turn would require explicitly stated guidelines and scoring rubrics. 

 A large number of online teachers took the time to confirm the value of communicative exchanges, stated through extensive comments in the survey. Online educators mentioned that “connected” students were more motivated, more engaged, and more successful academically. Several mentioned that it was beneficial for students to learn from others, supporting a sociocultural perspective on learning (Vygotsky, 1978). Student participants, however, were much less likely to mention the benefit of working with others – all but one mentioned that they prefer working alone. Many educators further described the various affordances of interactive activity options and tools, such as Zoom conferencing, shared Google Documents, and synchronous lessons.


Previous research has made a compelling case that students who engage in meaningful discourse and collaboration with others value the activity and feel more engaged, supported, and positive about online coursework, leading to increased success (Picciano, 2002; Yuan & Kim, 2014). Students who are encouraged to engage in discourse and work with others also attain crucial skills such as perspective-taking and empathy, preparing students to effectively dialogue with others in an increasingly diverse society (Gerzon, 2006, P21, 2007; Pink, 2006).

Findings from the present study (and a similar 2017 pilot study), however, indicate that students spend little to no time engaging in reciprocal academic discussions with teachers or collaborations with peers. Even though educators noted that academic interactions are valued, there are numerous hindrances to successful implementation in online learning environments.

 Change is urgently needed and most likely to take hold through a strong network of partnerships, ironically often created and sustained through technology. Online coursework has the potential to accommodate a variety of needs while providing a flexible, robust, and engaging learning environment. Generating and developing partnership alliances with online students and families, teachers, the online course vendor/provider, the larger school system, outside leaders, and interested researchers will be critical to ongoing success. It is within our collaborative grasp to create a vibrant community of online learners and design an environment that teaches, motivates and inspires.


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Dr. Sara Douglas, SCOE

Dr. Sara Douglas has over 30 years of teaching experience in diverse public school settings throughout California. She has taught in bilingual classes, served as a BTSA mentor, and is currently loving her job as a TK-8 advisory teacher specializing in curriculum, assessment, and literacy. Sara has earned a TESL certificate, an M.S. in Education (Instructional Media) and an Ed.D. (Educational Leadership Doctoral Program at SJSU). She embraces technology when used to enhance the 4 C’s of 21st century learning. Her motto is “Providing every student a successful today to ensure a bright future for tomorrow.”

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