How-to facilitate robust online discussions

Class discussion can be an effective learning tool – the challenge?  How-to facilitate and manage discussions virtually…

This is post two in a three-part series on how to create effective discussions in an online learning environment. Post one, introduced five components of effective discussions and addressed the first two – 1) course design and 2) establishing guidelines for students. In this post I”ll show how course instructors can develop and sustain dialogue by 3) creating ‘good’ and ‘right’ questions, and 4) guiding and moderating the discussions to support meaningful discourse. In the final post I’ll discuss methods for assessing student contributions in online forums. Please note, this series deals with discussions in the context of online courses for credit.

Discussions with no goal
Imagine for a minute, what a soccer game would look like if played without goal posts. Players running up and down the field aimlessly – with no goal, no purpose. This is similar to a discussion forum without a focus or direction — students posting and trying to engage in discussion aimlessly. Discussion getting off topic, rambling – learning [if it happens at all] is by chance. Online discussion need goals, structure and a purpose tied to the learning objectives of a course. The discussion is what builds cognitive presence, as  mentioned in previous posts, and is part of the Community of Inquiry model. Cognitive presence is an essential component to learning, according to this model for online learning, allowing for the construction of new knowledge.

“the challenge is that educators have the responsibility to provide structure and guidance that will encourage and support students assuming increased control of their learning(Garrison, 2006).

Creating ‘good’ and ‘right’ Discussion Questions
Good questions are just as important as the right questions. Questions must meet two criteria, be open-ended [good] and prompt students to reflect and analyze, and be ‘right’ in that the they support and lead students to construct and develop knowledge in support of  learning objectives. In a paper by Muilenburg and Berge, developing questions can be strategic to promote higher levels of cognitive thinking in consideration of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Example of question about critical incidents or problems:
“If you were consulting in this [a given] situation, how would you approach it? What might some of your recommendations be?  Explain thoroughly drawing upon the course readings for this week. Respond to one other classmate’s post with feedback and comments on his or her approach.

Promoting controversial discussion is another tactic that can be effective in supporting development of critical thinking skills. Instructor attention and facilitation is needed more so with this method, though most professors find the ensuing results well worth any additional effort. One of our instructor’s employes this method frequently by  selecting a recent ‘hot’ news topic, prompting students to take one ‘side’, explain his or her position, and then respond to a classmate with an opposing viewpoint.

Peer or Guest Moderators
The moderator does not always have to be the course instructor. Other options include, 1) class participants in the form of peer moderating, 2)  a teaching assistant or 3)  a ‘guest‘ moderator/speaker  (though usually the ‘guest’ is only for one week within a given class).

Peers as moderators…
Several studies have shown peer moderators to be just as, if not more effective than course instructors. In several courses I took for my graduate work, class members worked in teams of two or three and moderated discussions on a rotation basis throughout the course. Other courses operated by asking for peer moderator volunteers at the beginning of a session. These volunteers were given guidelines and support for skills in moderating.

There is a fine art of moderating as the course instructor. The drawbacks include, too much involvement where the conversation becomes instructor focused, and students become reticent to participate and hold back. Or, students that are fearful of making a ‘wrong’ statement, or feeling 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.

Questions to promote Deep Learning…

  • 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 or not? 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?
  • What is your reasoning for this? Can you compare this with the xxxx post? What is different and what is similar?
  • What might happen to xxxxx if your idea was implemented as you described?

Moderating discussions supports learning. As course instructor, you have much to say, much to give and contribute to students learning experience. With an effective course design, well crafted discussion questions and a skilled moderator that challenges and guides learning, online discussions will be active and robust where critical thinking skills flourish. Check back on Thursday for the final post in this series, how to asses and evaluate student participation in online discussions.

Resources
Post one: How to develop effective Online Discussions, onlinelearninginsights
Post three: The Method and Means to Grading Student Participation in Online      Discussions, onlinelearninginsights
Muilenburg, M. & Zane L. Berge. (2006). A framework for designing questions for online learning. Academia.edu

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.

2 thoughts on “How-to facilitate robust online discussions

  1. Pingback: Active learning and online courses…can they work together? « UTHSC's Faculty Resource Center

  2. Pingback: How-to facilitate robust online discussions | E-Learning and Online Teaching Today

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