Creating Rich, Robust Discussions in Online Learning

Part 2 of a 2 part series on Instructor involvement in Online discussions.

Who doesn’t love a stimulating, thought-provoking and engaging conversation? Online learning is a [potential] hotbed for such rich discussions – yet it takes deliberate instructional planning to develop, guide and teach effectively within online discussion forums. In online learning, the student is in the center, not the professor, yet here’s the irony –  the skills of the instructor and/or instructional designer, are needed just as much, if not more to create a pedagogically sound course using discussion effectively. Furthermore, efforts to simulate traditional face-to-face classroom methods in the asynchronous online environment through the use of ‘interactive’ discussion forums, miss the point. We need to create a new way of learning and designing courses, start from scratch. Let’s press on…

Goal of the Online Discussion
I like to start with the instructional design theory before we get into the practical methods –  if we start with a model of design, such as Dick, Carey and Carey model, we see that online discussion forums are a part of an overall strategy that support learning objectives. A good question to ask is ‘what purpose does the discussion serve’?  With good intentions, forums have been incorporated to create interaction, even fill a void and in an effort to mimic the social component from face-to-face. Discussions purposefully included however, using an instructional strategy are most effective for the student’s learning, promoting higher order thinking skills as per Bloom’s Taxonomy. In a college level course for example, we want to move the learner from the knowledge phase, at the bottom of the pyramid (recall, memorizing, listing etc), to the analysis and synthesis levels. It is at these levels where the student is challenged — he or she  compares, describes, classifies, contrasts using the course content. It’s the skillful instructor that can push the student up the taxonomy.

The Foundations
Let’s review and look at what needs to be in place to set the stage for good discussions:

  • In my post, part I, I introduced some fundamentals – here are two more:
  • Include an introductory forum where learners have an opportunity to meet one another, by sharing interests, backgrounds . One of my favorite student introduction activities is when the professor had us, (students) write a brief paragraph, then share three of our favorite websites, and explain why they were so. Introductory forums are an important component to set the stage for the learner feeling socially accepted and comfortable, which sets students up for success in the discussion forums, where real learning takes place.
  • Create a Rubric for the student. A rubric, grading tool that sets the standards and expectations for the student is an excellent tool because of its specificity.

Role of the Online Instructor
I’ve read numerous articles and even written a couple about the role of the instructor – who is the guide, mentor or facilitator?  Yes, yes and yes. The online instructor is all and more. The role is challenging, and most face-to-face instructors receive little or no support or development in the art of creating and supporting online discussions. What is most challenging for the instructor is knowing when to be involved in the discussion, to promote and guide discussion, and when to back off and observe to let the discussion evolve and develop without students feeling hindered and reticent with too much instructor presence. It’s a balance —  a skill and an art. That being said below are tactics and strategies to create rich and robust discussion:

  1. Create discussion questions which promote dialogue, by: keeping questions fairly short, beginning with ‘how’, ‘what’, and at the end of the question, add ‘Describe’ or ‘Explain”.
  2. Encourage discussion by rewarding the first couple of participants that begin the discussion, by commenting, ‘thanks [name of student], for getting us started off… that’s an good point – have you thought of….what do others think …..” This reinforces early participation, and models for students the behaviors required.
  3. Refocus discussion when needed by acknowledging the students viewpoint and providing an alternative viewpoint, then ask for feedback from students. Being supportive is critical in the online environment. Written text is always at risk for being misinterpreted.
  4. Encourage other students to build upon each other posts through the forum, by asking others for their comments, and by including this requirement in the rubric.
  5. Remove any offensive posts immediately (this rarely has happened in my experience), and contact student directly, by Skype, or phone to explain why.

Resources for Further Development
There are many, many resources for building skills in this area. Though I would say the very best method, is to participate in an online course as a student. Experience the other side! I’ve been fortunate to have some amazing professors, each with very unique and different approaches to online discussions. I’ve been able to use and share my experiences in my workplace which hopefully has helped other professors and students experience rich and robust discussion. Here are a few resources I found to be quite good.

5 thoughts on “Creating Rich, Robust Discussions in Online Learning

  1. Julie Lemmond

    I like to get involved in the discussion when it looks like there may need to be some re-directing or gentle, clarifying questions that can get the discussion back on track. If the discussion is going well I usually give a give a couple of “great points” or “I like the way you stated that point, good job” but I stay out of the way if things are going really well and most students are engaged.


    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      Hi Julie,

      Excellent points about getting involved in discussion forums to clarify student points, re-direct when needed, and above all, know when to disengage when students are on track and involved in deep discussion. As I mentioned in response to Donna’s point, what you are doing so well by what you describe in your comments, is demonstrating to students that you are engaged, “present” and involved. Studies show that students do care about instructor presence–often students’ perceptions on what they have learned in the class is related to the level of instructor involvement.

      Thanks for taking the time Julie to comment and share.


  2. Pingback: Creating Rich Robust Online Discussions | The eLearning Site

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