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Online discussions

Online discussions

28 May, 2016

Online discussions are a great method to extend classroom conversations and learning by getting students to get involved with class material online. Online discussions are frequently arranged by discussion boards, forums, and threads.

  • discussion boardis the tool that hosts the space for online discussions.
  • Discussion boards can have multiple forums, which can be organized by topic.
  • Discussion threadsare conversations within discussion forums and begin with a leading question or prompt. Users can react to the original prompt and can reply to other responses.

Course management systems, like Blackboard, and other web-based tools, such as Piazza, host online discussions.

Online discussions can take other types such as discussions based on a piece of work, or feedback dialogue on a student’s writing.  For example, when creating a wiki collaboratively, students may discuss the process online, or when posting on a blog, students can discuss the blog post in the comments section.

Advantages of Online Discussions

  • Flexible, not restricted by time or space.
  • In-class discussions can continue online and vice versa.
  • Students can get ready for class activities by engaging in online discussions that are designed to have students get familiar with new topics. For example, students can discuss their responses to a pre-class reading.
  • Online discussions can simultaneously reach various types of learners. Online discussions can allow introverted thinkers time to process a response and extraverted thinkers time to reflect on their thoughts before posting.
  • Students can utilize online discussions to give and receive feedback on their work.
  • Postings are saved and conversations can be reviewed for evaluation and reflection purposes.
  • Online discussions can be a space where students answer each other’s frequently asked questions about the course, helping to lessen the instructor workload by dealing with questions that otherwise might be emailed to her or him.

Creating Effective Online Discussions

  • Take the learning outcomesfor using online discussions in your course into account. What do you want students to be able to do, know, or value as a result of participating in an online discussion?
  • Connect online discussions with your overall course learning outcomes and course activities. Make sure that your online discussion is incorporated into your overall course design. Online discussions can also be used to manage collaborative assignments such as designing a wiki, or reflection exercises that motivate students to become more aware of their learning or attitude shifts over a semester.
  • Design effective questions or discussion prompts. Use Bloom’s taxonomyto inform your question or prompt design. Effective questions prompt students to get involved in a discussion in meaningful ways.
  • Create and stagger mini deadlines. Hold students accountable for posting responses by a certain deadline. A few days later ask students to respond to at least two or three other students. A day or two after that, have students respond to their peer’s comments, and so on. Doing this ensures that all students receive some sort of feedback on or engagement with their contributions. It also helps to facilitate an ongoing discussion.
  • Communicate assignment expectations. Inform students how often they are expected to log on and post; experienced faculty recommend twice a week. State how their online participation (both attendance and quality of participation) will affect their course grades. Some faculty assign bonus points for high-quality contributions; others weigh online participation as 10 percent or less of the course grade.
  • Use a rubric if you will grade online discussions.Create and share a rubric that guides students in their online discussion contributions. Quantitative and qualitative elements should be added so that students are well aware of the expected extent of participation and what a quality contribution looks like. Consider having students review the rubric before engaging in the discussion and ask them for feedback. If appropriate, incorporate any suggested changes and use this rubric for evaluation.
  • Break students into groups.Experienced faculty recommends that groups comprise of four to twelve students, and no more than twenty students. In large courses, you can list a set of discussion topics and let students decide which discussion to join.
  • Assign roles. Instructors can also divide the class into three groups with three different roles—one to pose questions, one to respond to questions, and one to summarize and comment—and have students rotate groups/roles throughout the term. Similarly, roles can be given to students within the same discussion group. Each member can have roles, such as the facilitator, the devil’s advocate, the synthesizer and the summarizer. These roles can also rotate.


Managing online discussions

At the beginning:

  • Set the tone. How formal or informal do you anticipate students’ posts to be? Describe and give examples of the style you expect them to follow. You may wish to establish ground rulesfor appropriate language and behavior and to require all participants to identify themselves by name. Students who are new to discussion boards may appreciate seeing examples of thoughtful and courteous posts.

Throughout the discussion:

  • Allow students to do the talking. In order to stimulate student interaction, and discourage directing posts to the instructor, stay in the background as much as possible. Only interject when needed.
  • Ask probing questions.Effective questions are the key to both starting and keeping discussion. Prompt discussion by asking for clarification or evidence to support a claim, pose a problem or scenario, or play devil’s advocate. Facilitators can also direct students and motivate them to respond to other posts that are either similar with their own posts, or dramatically different.
  • Address any incivilities as soon as they happen. An online learning environment can be tarnished quickly by unaddressed hostility. Refer to ground rulesthat may have established at the beginning.  Prepare how you will address incivilities and inform students how you would do so (for example, students may be asked to remove a comment if it is unacceptable). If necessary, address unacceptable behavior offline in a private setting.
  • Watch out for orphaned comments and silent students.Sometimes students’ comments or questions get little or no response from other students. The authors of these orphaned comments may become demotivated and drop out of the discussion. If you see this dynamic, encourage students to respond to the orphaned comments. When quieter students participate, give them a supportive response.

At the end of the discussion:

  • Ensure closure through synthesis and summary. To prevent letting a threaded discussion lose its way or simply fade out, periodically pose questions that need synthesis and summary of the thread. You could also assign this task and other moderating roles to individual students.

 Evaluating online discussions

  • Assess online contributions.Whether or not online participation counts toward course grades, give students some comments about the quality of their contributions. Most online discussion software enables you to preserve and archive contributions and then review these when evaluating the quantity and quality of participation. Using a grading rubric can help to make sure that evaluation is reliable. Students can also do self and peer assessments on their own and their classmate’s contributions.
  • Assess your online discussion. Check in with students to see how they experienced the online discussion. You can do this by asking students to respond anonymously to a couple of questions such as: What part of this online discussion worked well for you? What are one or two things that if done differently may have made the online discussions more effective?

Examples of online discussions

  • An FAQ board that students can use to ask and answer questions about your course.
  • Discussions around specific topics or current events related to course concepts.
  • Discussions around collaborative worksuch as an ongoing problem-based learning activity, or a wiki.
  • Feedback dialogue on a student writing assignment
  • Reading responses to pre-class reading assignments.
  • Reflections on course readings and lectures in relation to personal experiences.

Considerations for online discussions

  • Online discussions need structure, such as guidelines for participation and deadlines.
  • A productive online learning environment will foster participation and may promote risk-taking, resulting in more substantial contributions.
  • If not incorporated into other course activities, students may find online discussions irrelevant.
  • Effective questions need higher order thinking skills, such as analyzing, comparing, predicting, and applying concepts.
  • Students may need support with technology, as well as effective online communication.