Using Online Tools to Increase Student Communication

There are a wide-range of asynchronous communication tools that can be used to engage students in face-to-face, online and hybrid courses. This blog will explore a selection of tools that can be used to foster meaningful online discussions and assignments. Learning Innovation has also written a guide on best use practices for community building and asynchronous communication that can help you effectively implement the tools you are interested in using.

Use Online Discussion Forums to Engage Students Outside of Class

If you would like to integrate a discussion forum into your course, Duke supports multiple options. Sakai Forums is a threaded discussion tool many students are familiar with and can be easily added to your Sakai course site. 

If you are interested in using a tool that has Question and Answer functionality, there are several options to consider. While Duke initially used Piazza for Q&A, we are moving away from using it as a university-wide tool. Duke is currently supporting two new options: Ed Discussion (in pilot) and Sakai Conversations (in beta). You might use Ed Discussion if you are looking for a tool that supports multiple conversation types (Question, Post and Announcement). Sakai Conversations currently only supports Q&A functionality but, like Forums, is a tool that lives in your course site. For more information on these tools, as well as your options if you wish to continue using Piazza, please see our update on Piazza for the Fall 2021 semester.

Use Sites@Duke to Design Interactive Assignments

Sites@Duke (powered by WordPress) allows members of the Duke community to build their own websites. If you are designing a course with either online components or a class that is fully online, you may be able to take advantage of this medium by creating digital assignments. Depending on your course’s learning objectives, having students create their own websites might be a project that also teaches them professional skills. 

Instructors and students can use Sites@Duke to build:

  • Individual blogs that reflect on content related to the course
  • Student e-portfolios
  • Course project websites centered around a theme
  • Podcast websites

Blogs in particular fit well with a class that has asynchronous components, as the genre of writing is meant to be short, reflective and spark conversations among readers. The University of Wisconsin-Stout has a sample blog rubric that might guide you in purposefully designing such assignments. 

Bloggers using Sites@Duke can enable comments, which allows for students and instructors to engage with each others’ work. (Note: If your students’ projects will be public, you need them to each sign a release form. Please see Duke ScholarWorks for a model form.) This has the benefit of you being able to design an assignment that helps students practice public-facing writing (a skill that you can emphasize as transferable), as well as opening up discussion of course topics within your class. For example, if you have students write a blog post before holding a synchronous session, you will know your students will be prepared to participate by expanding on what they and their classmates originally wrote. Allowing students who might find speaking up during discussions difficult to leave comments on their peers’ blog posts also opens up new lines of participation. 

Use VoiceThread for Multi-Modal Communication

If you want to incorporate multimedia into your classroom in the form of Powerpoint presentations, short video clips, music or images, then VoiceThread, integrated with Sakai at Duke, could invite students to engage with these materials more interactively. You can see examples of VoiceThread projects in the VoiceThread Digital Library.

Instructors and students can use VoiceThread to:

  • Create presentations
  • Leave voice, video or text comments on VoiceThreads
  • Provide feedback on works in progress
  • Practice their speaking and reading skills in the language classroom

Bass Digital Education Fellow for the 2020-21 academic year Anderson Hagler recently completed a project exploring how instructors at Duke use VoiceThread and produced a video showing examples of how this tool can be used.

Rather than having students simply watch a Powerpoint presentation asynchronously, for example, you can use VoiceThread to make this component of the course more active. By asking students to leave comments on the VoiceThreads you create, you will be able to see what parts of the material students engaged with and how. Providing students guidelines, like this VoiceThread comment sample rubric, will also clarify for students what types of comments are appropriate. 

Use Social Annotation Tools to Connect Students Through Reading

Social annotation is a practice that encourages a group to read a text together, through commenting in the margins. Using social annotation not only encourages interaction and shared thought between your students as they read, but can also be an opportunity for you to connect with your students, particularly if you do not have live sessions. If you do have live sessions, using an online annotation tool will give you the opportunity to see what may be most beneficial to cover during your synchronous time, and students will be prepared to participate because they have already done critical thinking through their annotations.

Collaborative annotation opens up instructional possibilities across the disciplines. You can encourage interaction in social annotation by: 

  • Embedding open-ended questions in the text that prompt student analysis
  • Providing explanations to students that might help them understand difficult portions of the material
  • Encouraging students to ask their own questions that could be answered by instructors or peers
  • Holding conversations in the text by replying to others
  • Gaining an understanding of how your students are consuming the texts based on their annotations

After ending the 2020-21 pilot, Duke reached an agreement with for a limited license for the 2021-22 academic year. If you are interested in having added to your Sakai course site, please email us at

Hypothesis provides a Teacher Resource Guide, which includes both technical and instructional assistance, including examples of students annotating a wide variety of texts (novels, scientific journal articles, court cases, etc.). The video series Liquid Margins also features conversations with instructors and learning consultants that discusses how social annotation can be used for a variety of disciplines (including math, history and languages) and class sizes. A similar tool to Hypothesis is Persuall (a tool that is not supported by Duke).

Alternatively, if you are asking students to annotate a small amount of text, you can paste it into a Google Doc or Box note and have students use the commenting feature to hold a conversation in the margins. 

Final Tips

While these online communication tools (and many others) can enhance learning experiences, choose tools that are effective and accessible to your students. If you are interested in integrating a new tool into your course, be sure you can model assignments for your students and that you have the skills to help them navigate learning the tool. You also will want to limit the number of tools you introduce into your classroom so you do not overwhelm students. 

For more information on how to purposefully integrate tools into the classroom, please see the Flexible Teaching Guide to Course Delivery.

If you would like to discuss integrating these tools or practices into your course and how they might align with your learning outcomes, you can email us at or visit us in open office hours every Monday from 1 to 3 p.m. EDT and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. EDT at