Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Facilitating Robust Online Discussions

A discussion forum in an online class can be an effective learning tool if it is used effectively. There should be a goal or purpose for the discussion so that students know it is not just busy work. Morrison (2012) illustrates this with an analogy of playing a soccer game without goal posts. Players would be running up and down the field aimlessly with no goal, no purpose. This is similar to a discussion forum without focus or direction. Students are posting and trying to engage in the discussion aimlessly just to fulfill the posting requirement.

Creating Good Questions
The online discussion should be tied to the learning objectives or outcomes so that students understand the purpose for the discussion. It is also important that good questions are asked of the students. Questions must meet two criteria, be open-ended and prompt students to reflect an analyze; and lead students to construct and develop knowledge in support of the learning objectives.

Promotion of Controversial Discussions
The promotion of a discussion on a topic that may be controversial is a tactic that can be effective in supporting the development of critical thinking skills. Instructor attention and facilitation is needed more with this type of discussion, but the results may well be worth the extra effort. An instructor might use this method by selecting a recent "hot" news topic, and prompting students to take one "side" and explain his or her position. Students would then be instructed to respond to a classmate with an opposing viewpoint.

Peer or Guest Moderators
The discussion moderator does not always have to be the course instructor. Other options include, class participants given the responsibility of peer moderating (with guidelines and established support skills); a teaching assistant; or a "guest" moderator/speaker such as a librarian or content expert.

Role of the Moderator
There is an art to moderating a discussion as the course instructor. Too much involvement where the conversation becomes instructor focused could make students reticent to participate. Students may also be fearful of making a "wrong" statement or feeling like they have nothing worthwhile to contribute. "The role of the moderator is to promote thinking, challenge learners to think, consider a problem or situation from alternative viewpoints and to develop new knowledge through thinking and constructing" (Morrison, 2012).

Examples of Questions that Promote Robust Discussions
  • That is an interesting point. What might someone who disagrees with you say to challenge your opinion?
  • Can you compare your response to xxx (other student post)? Are you both saying the same thing? Why or why not?
  • You make a good observation, can you give us some examples to support your view?
  • What are alternatives to the one you suggested? Are there other solutions/options?
  • What is your reasoning for this? Can you compare this with xxx post? What is different or similar to yours?
Course instructors have much to say and much to contribute and share with their students. With an effective course design, well crafted discussion questions and skilled moderation, online discussions will be active and robust where critical thinking skills flourish (Morrison, 2012).

References and Resources
Delaney, S. Beyond the Discussion Board: 10 Tips for Engaging Online Students.

Morrison, D. (June 25, 2012). How-to Facilitate Robust Online Discussions. Online Learning Insights.

Muilenburg, M. & Zane L. Berge. (2006). A framework for designing questions for online learning.

Seo, K.K. (2007). Utilizing peer moderating in online discussions: Addressing the controversy between teacher moderation and non-moderation. The American Journal of Distance Education, 21(1). p 21 -26.

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