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.

The No-textbook Challenge: Using web resources to replace the College Text

Is it possible to use Open Educational Resources  and other open education materials to replace student textbooks for an online college course? Find free content on the web, eliminating the need for  students to buy textbooks?  Yes! –  at least for the course United States Government which I put to the test. I put myself up to the  No Textbook Challenge – to replace textbooks for a given General Education college three credit course as described in my last post. In this post, I’ll outline the context of the course, and the engaging, comprehensive and free instructional resources which I’ve incorporated into the online course delivered via Moodle (the  learning management platform our college uses).

 The context
I use the Dick, Carey and Carey instructional model (consisting of 9 phases) for design and re-design of our online courses. There are nine phases in the model – though with the re-design we focus on phase 7 and 8, developing the instructional strategy and selecting the instructional materials.

Background: Course Objectives:
To put the course in perspective, the course is a survey course designed to introduce students to the institutions and processes of the American political system.

  • Explain the basic concepts on which the American governmental system was based
  • Describe the workings of the American governmental system
  • Outline the process by which a bill becomes a law
  • Explain the various civil rights guaranteed by the Constitution
  • Describe the basic functions, organization, and powers of the Congress, the presidency, and the judiciary

Instructional Materials:
Instructional materials are part of the Instructional Strategy and are essentially the content that supports the course objectives. Other materials may include materials (resources) such as, workbooks, textbooks, case studies, web resources, lecture notes, simulations etc. For this US Government course, we use pre-recorded video lectures that covers some of the course topics, delivered over 8 modules, and text books, (before the re-design).

The texts we replaced:
1) American Government, Brief Edition, 9th Ed. by James Q. Wilson – $76.73 (paper back), $69.06 (Kindle edition)
2) The Federalist Papers by Charles Kessler – $7.99

English: Title page of the first printing of t...

With: open content and web resources: – Free
The resources below are part of the instructional strategy –  the instructor uses these as content to support learning objectives. Note that student application and synthesis comes through online forum discussions, group work, mini assignments, quizzes and essay assignments where the student applies the content. These sources are not the sole method of learning, it is instructor involvement and guidance that promotes meaningful and authentic learning.

Federalist Papers: : This  awesome site, features 100 milestone documents of American history presented by the National Archives. Best of all the site lets the user view and zoom in on the images of original documents, including all of the federalist papers, i.e. Federalist no. 10, as it appeared in the New York Daily Advertiser, November 22, 1787.

American Government: Topics:

I  The Constitution of United States
The United States Constitution – Constitution Day Resources, Library of Congress
The Declaration of Independence – The History Channel – video
Constitution development & Principles: Video lesson: OER, US Government
Federalism: Video Lesson: OER:
Library of US Historical Documents:

II Political Beliefs and Behaviors
Political Parties:
Interest Groups and their influence: other, list of select groups
Public Policy:
The Media and its Influence: Pew Research Center
Voting Behavior of the Public: other

III Institutions of the Government: Congress, Presidency, Bureaucracy and Courts
Electoral College – how it works: The Kahn Academy
Three Branches of Government: Harry Truman Library Resources
The Nature of Bureaucracy: OER video lesson
Legislative Simulation –
Presidential Election History:
The White House
US Senate: Live Stream of US Capitol

IV Civil Rights and Liberties
The Bill of Rights:
Civil Rights: Landmark Cases:
How a bill becomes Law: OER

Glossary of Political Economic Terms:

This course used for this no textbook challenge was [very] conducive to open content. Not all courses will lend themselves to open and free content, though I firmly believe that with detailed and careful research, there is much content available on the web for free. I do want to reiterate, that the resources we listed do not stand on their own – the selection and choice of tools require careful pedagogical planning and development of learning activities and assessments. And, the final component of successful learning is instructor guidance and instruction. Check back in a few days for another post on other textbook options.

Keep Learning 🙂

Is there a Future for e-textbooks in Online Courses?

What is the future of Digital Textbooks in U.S. education? After I participated in a webinar on Friday, by this same title sponsored by MBS textbooks, though enlightening, it dawned on me that we [educators] have been asking all the wrong questions about e-textbooks. Instead of when and if [will we incorporate e-texbooks], how [will we include them], we should be asking why and what. What tools and resources will support the learning objectives? What will be relevant and meaningful to students?  What are the needs of the learners? Why should we choose a given textbook?

Before getting caught up in the slick, attractive and enhanced world of interactive e-textbooks, it’s a perfect opportunity to stop and…

Reframe the Textbook Discussion
The discussion needs to be re-framed in the context of the course instructional design process. Let me explain. During a recent re-design of two general education online courses, I revisited the instructional design model I usually follow, the Dick, Carey and Carey ISD. This model reminded me that the textbook is an instructional tool in the big picture strategy —- it is not the driver of the course, it supports the course objectives.

The AHAH moment!
I began to rethink the textbook conundrum, AHAH! Maybe the textbook as we know it may not even be necessary! It [the textbook] might not be the right instructional ‘tool’ for the course in the first place. A radical thought for some? — I am not suggesting to rule out textbooks as viable options (whether hard copy or digital), but we need to ask —- is this e-textbook (from one of the major textbook publishers) the only option? It might be … might. There is a plethora of resources available to educators on the Web, many at little or no cost. We have choices for instructional resources that we did not have forty, thirty or even ten years ago. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Education is transforming, and morphing in response to shifts in digital products and resources, and information consumption patterns. Course instructors and designers  have the opportunity to take charge and assess their current learning strategy, students and choice of [instructional] materials.

Start with the Instructional Design Process
Let’s take a step back and review the foundations of a course design. I am a fan of Instructional design models, because it gives me a framework when designing or re-designing courses (online or not). As mentioned my model of choice  is Dick and Carey’s Systems Approach model of instruction. The model is based on Gagne’s domains of learning. The instructor, learners, materials, teaching activities learning and performance environments interact to bring about the desired learning outcomes, whether for online courses or other.

Dick, Carey and Carey Instructional Design Model

Side note: it is not until stage 7 (of 9 stages) that selecting instructional materials, which includes text books, even happens.  This model is one of many – though each follows similar patterns in course development.

Assessing the best Instructional Tools (textbooks, digital learning objects etc)
What better time than now, in 2012 on the brink of major educational transformation to revisit the building blocks in our courses to assess what the best instructional materials, assessment methods, and tools will most effectively support learning outcomes. Analyzing the learner, and how he or she learns is another essential step, as the learning context has changed:

  • Learning is social
  • The learner, more than ever before has access to tools to construct knowledge
  • Learning is anytime, anywhere

Since the context of learning has changed, so should the instructional tools.

Open and Free: Course Instructional Materials Options

The [no] textbook challenge!
To wrap up – I am not suggesting we disregard the college publishers textbooks or e-textbooks, digital options and tools as viable options. Not at all, but I am suggesting that educators:
1. Use a sound instructional model as a guide when designing or re-designing online courses
2. Consider, then select the best tool to fit the needs of students and course objectives
3. Consider options – research what resources and tools are available

Check back later this week for my no-textbook challenge. I’m redesigning two online general education courses, US Government and English Literature.  My goal is to find alternatives to the current textbooks used by using OER and other tools, that will cost the student not more than $20.

Keep Learning 🙂