Boosting Engagement with Interpersonal Feedback Tools in Online Collaborative Learning

Streamed Session Blended Research

Watch This Session

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Collaborative learning is a critical part of education, yet facilitating fruitful peer-to-peer interactions is more difficult online than in-person. This session summarizes how real-time feedback about interpersonal dynamics of peer interactions leads to higher levels of engagement and better individual and team performance.


Beth Porter has pioneered research and developed products that transform online teaching and learning. Beth launched the Open edX initiative at edX, an open-source digital learning software used by more than 55 million learners worldwide. Beth was instrumental in architecting the original Texas OnCourse program, a state-funded career and college counseling platform serving all Texas schools. A former VP at Pearson Education and edX, Porter’s expertise stems from a deep passion for education, and desire to provide high quality tech-enabled learning experiences. She has led multiple product and engineering teams to deliver customer-focused educational technology products. As part of her work building edtech products that truly solve higher education’s engagement problem, Porter is co-founder, President and COO of Esme Learning, an AI-powered digital learning platform. She has worked with clients in technology, education, and publishing to develop product strategy and vision, provide technical direction and architecture, and conceive end-to-end solutions that meet business needs. Porter also co-founded Riff Analytics, AI-enabled collaboration software that was acquired by Esme Learning in 2021. Porter is a lecturer at Boston University’s Questrom School of Management.

Extended Abstract

Topic and Relevance

Online instruction often lacks a social collaborative environment, which limits opportunities for immediate feedback on engagement and interpersonal dynamics, which are easier to foster in traditional, in-person instruction. This deficiency can make collaborative activities such as group projects and discussions especially challenging online. Indeed, many online courses fail to engage students and advance their progress toward achieving learning objectives, especially for small groups.

Although online instruction may never replicate the in-person alternatives, there are tools available for improving engagement and social interactions in online courses. This session will introduce attendees to “interaction instrumentation” for facilitating engagement in collaborative learning contexts. First, we will discuss the initial development of three foundational user-facing applications and supporting backend frameworks:

  • Video chat (with real-time meeting mediator)

  • Post-meeting metrics

  • Text chat (which includes video chat and post-meeting metrics)

Researchers have discovered that richer modes of communication lead to higher rates of trust, cooperation, engagement, and social presence (Bos et al. 2002). For example, video conferences, which include real-time video and voice, are richer modes of communication than asynchronous discussion boards. Authentic interactions are accompanied by subtle signals such as vocal tone, body language, and speech patterns. We designed our tools with artificial intelligence (AI) to detect these kinds of signals and provide feedback to users, both in real-time and after online interactions.


Attendees will have the opportunity to watch live demonstrations of the communication tools being used and participate in live discussion.

Second, we will describe recent results from studying the impact of the communication tools in online courses. We implemented the video communication tools as part of an online course that required students to collaborate on a group project. Overall, we found that the frequency of using video communication tools with AI-guided feedback was strongly related to engagement and performance:

  • Each video chat made during the first four weeks of the course was associated with twice the probability of receiving a certificate of completion.

  • Each additional video chat made during the first four weeks of the course was associated with increased grades.

  • Most benefits were accrued after participating in the first four to five video chats. Students who participated in more than four calls (an average of one per week) received final grades 80% higher than those who did not and were twice as likely to earn a certificate.

Although this study was conducted before the 2020 pandemic, the study offered insights into the factors that contribute to successful transition of programs to online environments. The platform was designed to foster virtual engagement, providing course developers and instructors new tools for offering online experiences likely to capture and keep learner interest. This is especially critical in a time when the pandemic has forced millions of students and professional learners around the globe to use online platforms, replacing the traditional in-person instruction.

The last part of our session will discuss more recent advances to our communication tools and opportunities for using them to facilitate online collaboration in a variety of different educational and workplace environments. Attendees will leave this session with knowledge of the latest advances in AI applications for supporting collaborative learning, the latest research on how these tools are used in practice, and inspiration for implementing technology to improve learning and social experiences online.