Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Getting Students to Participate in Online Discussions

You have probably experienced the blank stares from students in the classroom when it is time to have a discussion. It can be a challenge to get students to interact with each other. Online discussion forums present more challenges due to its "virtual" space. Research conducted by Wang & Chen  (2008) suggests that online discussions often fall flat because they are shallow, superficial, and fail to engage students.

From a student's perspective, poorly designed forums can feel like busy work, a pointless exercise that they have to complete in order to get a decent grade. Is it really worth the effort to develop effective online discussions? The answer is yes--online class discussions are an essential tool in developing engagement and mostly importantly, cognitive presence which builds critical thinking skills (Morrison, 2012).

What can we do to create effective online discussions? The instructional design of the course, or how it is set-up is critical. Course discussions are most successful when they are embedded into the design of the course and are tied to the learning objectives or outcomes. Below are some key components to effective online discussions.

  1. A solid course design strategy where discussion forums support the learning objectives will help the students to see that they are a meaningful activity. The ITRC can provide assistance with designing this type of course. In addition, the Quality Matters Rubric provides a road map to effective course design.
  2. Clear and concise guidelines and expectations for the students are important. Be consistent with due dates and posting requirements. State how participation will affect the student's overall grade. In the instructions for the discussion forum include a sentence that states the purpose for the discussion, thus alleviating the feeling that it is pointless busy work. Morrison (2012) provides some additional tips for discussion guidelines.
  3. A skilled facilitator or moderator will make all the difference in the quality of the discussion. 
  4. Well constructed topics or questions are critical.
  5. An assessment component like a rubric should be used for giving students feedback on their posts.
There is much upfront effort required to set the stage for effective online discussions, even before the first discussion is opened, yet it is well worth the effort if it is done right. Online discussions have tremendous potential to promote critical thinking skills, force students to engage with the content, use higher order thinking skills, and construct new knowledge (Morrison, 2012). Numerous studies suggest it is the act of writing, thinking about and composing a text-based post that encourages students to engage their higher order thinking skills (Wang & Chen, 2008).

Morrison, D. (June 22, 2012). How to Get Students to Participate in Online Discussions. Online Learning Insights.

Wang Y. & Victor Der-Thang Chen (2008). Essential Elements in Designing Online Discussions to Promote Cognitive Presence, Journal of Asynchronous Communication. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 3-4 (12).

Wade, D. A., Bentley, J. P. H., & Waters, S. H. (2006). Twenty guidelines for successful threaded discussions: A learning environment approach. Distance Learning, 3(3), 1-8.

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