Monday, September 16, 2013

Improving Online Class Discussions

Anyone who has taught an online class knows that one of the biggest challenges is providing tools for student-to-student interaction. Asynchronous class discussions can be a great tool for promoting class participation. However, it can be difficult to get students to participate in the discussions if they don't see a value in it or perceive it as "busy work" instead of a learning tool. Rizopoulos and McCarthy said that "threaded discussions provide virtual learning connections which transcend class hours and provide a dynamic, dialogic learning environment where students reflect, collaborate and discuss real world issues" (2009, p. 373).

Tips for Effective Class Discussions

  • Topic: The instructor needs to incorporate thought provoking discussion topics from the curriculum into the course that will promote interaction and the sharing of thoughts, ideas, and opinions.
  • Rules: To ensure that students stay involved with the discussion throughout the week, set specific guidelines for participation. For example, if the week starts on Sunday, require that the students make their initial post by Wednesday and respond to at least two other people's posts by Saturday. The instructor may also have the ability to prevent students from reading other posts until they have made their initial post (such as the Q&A forum in Moodle).
  • Facilitation: Students can get off topic, so it is the job of the instructor to act as a facilitator within the discussion. This is a delicate balance for the instructor - too much intervention and the students may become intimidated and the discussion will shut down. The instructor should set an example for the students with a few thoughtful posts to redirect the conversation to the topic at hand.
  • Grading: There will be better participation if students receive a grade for their contributions (think of it as a substitution for an in-class participation grade). Generally, discussions are not graded for grammar or other technical parts but instead the grader is looking for the quality of the thought behind the posts. A grading rubric is useful for communicating to students how their posts will be graded. Below is an example from Rizopoulos and McCarthy (2009):
    • 5 Points - Excellent. Insightful and reflective discussion contributions; made an initial post and expanded upon at least two other ideas presented in discussion.
    • 3 Points - Acceptable. Elaboration and contribution to one or two ideas within the discussion.
    • 1 Point - Marginal. Simple insight or contribution to the topic.
  • Group Size: If the class is larger than 20 students it might be beneficial to divide the class into smaller sub-groups for the purposes of discussion. The smaller group sizes (5-7 students per group) will facilitate more robust discussions because it takes less time to read and respond to posts and students can get to know each other better in the small group setting.

More resources on improving your online class discussions:

Lee, C. (2013). 5 tips for hosting online class discussions.

Online Learning Insights - a Blog about Open and Online Education. More essential and helpful resources for online instructors.

Rizopoulos, L.A., & McCarthy, P. (2009). Using online threaded discussions: best practices for the digital learner. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 37(4), 373-383.

Wang, Y., & Chen, V. (2008). Essential elements in designing online discussions to promote cognitive presence - A practical experience. The Sloan Consortium, 12(3-4).

Six-minute video, Conducting effective online discussions from the COFA series Learning to Teaching Online, provides educators with skill development and strategies for managing and facilitating effective online discussions and how to engage students in the process.

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