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 that get off topic, ramble— learning then [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 (CoI) 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, using discussion questions can be strategy that promotes higher levels of cognitive thinking.

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).

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 moderation, 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.

How to Get Students to Participate in Online Discussions

This is the first post in a triplet series on how to create effective discussions in an online learning environment. This post discusses how course instructors can shape and create robust and rich discussions, in post two I”ll share facilitation strategies to develop and sustain course dialogue, and I’ll conclude the series with methods for assessing student contributions and participation in online forums. Please note, this series addresses discussions in the context of online courses for credit – as forums in Massive Open Online Courses [MOOCs} are a different animal altogether [I will share my thoughts on MOOC discussion forums next month at the close of the MOOC course I am taking].

Getting students to ‘talk’
Getting students to participate in [brick and mortar] classroom discourse can be a painful process – the blank stares or worse students absorbed with their laptops or iPhones, which is disconcerting to say the least. Yet online discussion forums present further challenges due to its ‘virtual’ space. Research suggests online discussions often fall flat- are shallow, superficial, fail to engage students and result in frustration —for students and the course instructor (Wang & Chen, 2008). From a student’s perspective, poorly designed forums can feel like busy work, a pointless exercise. Is it really worth the effort to develop effective discussions? Yes – online class dialogue is essential to developing engagement and most importantly cognitive presence, which builds critical thinking skills [for more about critical thinking in the online environment see resources below].

“It is within online discussions where learners are able to construct and confirm meaning [of course content] through sustained reflection and discourse.” (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001).

What makes Online Discussions effective….
In the online program at my workplace, we struggled with getting students to engage in discussions forums throughout a given course. After several months, we’ve increased participation considerably after much trial and error. We found it takes more than a skilled facilitator to develop and sustain meaningful dialogue. The instructional design of the course – or  how the course is set-up is critical. Course discussions are most successful when embedded into the design, are tied to the learning objectives or outcomes, which allows for purposeful discussions rather than ‘busy’ work or forced dialogue for the sake of creating ‘interaction’. Below are key components to effective online discussions, adapted from a journal article in Distance Learning (Wade, et al., 2006). My own take on each, follows in [brackets].

  1. A solid course design strategy where discussion forums support learning objectives [students thus recognize discussions are meaningful].
  2. Clear, concise guidelines and expectations for students [I’ll share some examples in this post].
  3. Well constructed topics/questions [critical! – I’ll discuss this aspect in post 2].
  4. A skilled facilitator or moderator [in our program, most successful discussions include the instructor or students as the moderator – more on this in my next post].
  5. An assessment component for giving student feedback [we use a grading rubric – I’ll share a sample with you in my next post. Though grading participation has its drawbacks and benefits, which I’ll discuss in post 3].

Course Design
I won’t spend a lot of time on this topic, except to highlight the need to create a solid instructional strategy with clear, learning objectives and outcomes, with carefully selected content and methods where students will apply and work with the course content, (this is where discussions come into play). Consult my preferred method of instructional design, the Dick, Carey and Carey instructional design model, click here.

Guidelines for Students
We found clearly outlining expectations in more than one place within the course is helpful for students, and reinforces the purpose of, and expectations for discussions. I always like to include a sentence that states the purpose for the discussion, thus alleviating the feeling of pointless busy work. We include a statement such as, “Discussion forums are an important part of learning in an online ‘space’….most students find that participating in discussions helps with not only understanding of the course content, but deepens their learning and ability to think critically….”

Below is a sample of what we include in our online syllabus, under the heading of Discussion guidelines.

  • Use a subject line that relates to your post; this will help create interest and focus for the discussion.
  • Write clearly and with expression. Communicating online requires careful and concise writing, but also allows your personality to come through! Though humor is effective and at times relevant in discussion, be sure to avoid sarcasm, which does not translate well in the online environment.
  • Be supportive, considerate and constructive when replying to your classmates. Do not use jargon, slang or inappropriate language. If you disagree with a classmate please respond in a respectful and tactful manner. Any posts deemed inappropriate by the professor will be removed from the discussion board.
  • Keep your post focused on the topic, relating any class readings and materials from the current module in your post (as applicable).
  • Proofread and review your response before hitting the submit button! You have one hour to edit your response before it is posted, then, it cannot be modified or removed except by the instructor.
  • Participate regularly. Improve your learning by being an active and engaged student. Successful students follow and participate in the assigned discussion throughout the module, logging on at least three times a week while reading and participating in forums as assigned in the module.

In the instructions section for a particular module or week, we include directions and specific guidelines for participation:

“Participate in the Module xx discussion forum. Discussion forums are graded and count towards your participation grade. Refer to the Discussion Forum grading rubric in section xx of the course e-book.”

The Potential of Online Discussions
From what I’ve presented thus far, you can see there is much upfront effort required to set the stage for effective online discussion, even before the first discussion is launched, yet it is well worth the effort. 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. 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) – it’s the power of writing.

Click here to read the next post in this series, which reviews strategies the course instructor can implement to continue the momentum of developing and sustaining effective course discussions, and here for the final post on discussion assessment.

Resources
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.

Related Posts: Critical thinking in the Online Classroom, Onlinelearninginsights 
Post Two: How to facilitate robust discussions online, Onlinelearninginsights
Post Three: The method and means to grading student participation in online discussions, Onlinelearninginsights
MOOC Mythbuster – what MOOCs are and what they aren’t, Onlinelearninginsights