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.

Instructor involvement in Online Discussions? To be or not?

This post is Part 1 of a 2 part series on Instructor involvement in Online discussions

How important is discussion and discourse in learning?  How about in online learning?  Somewhat important —- vital —- not?  This past week I’ve been immersed in online discussions— as a participant and as a mentor to professors teaching online. Before we go on, the answer to the question is … vital, critical, essential – the instructor that is.  A caveat, deep, authentic and successful learning is supported by instructors that guide, yet focus, redirect, and shall I say… nurture. It’s a challenge, as facilitating discussions in online classes is much different than face-to-face. It’s no surprise that instructors teaching online are often at odds with how to develop effective discussions in the online class. Some professors even feel it’s best not to get involved. What to do?

From a Student’s Perspective…
Can students have meaningful and valuable online discussions asynchronously without the instructor’s presence?  Research says no, for the most part. And from a student’s perspective, I’d have to agree. My most meaningful learning experiences involve at least some level of interaction and contributions from the professor. The involved instructor keeps the discussion focused and moving by responding to student posts with comments and questions that challenge students to build on their point and think.

What the experts say about Instructor Participation….

  • “Instructor presence [including participation in discussions] is a key element in the distinction between online and face-to-face education. Online instructors need to be “seen” in order to be perceived by their students as present in the course just as do face-to-face course instructors”. (Mandernach et al, 2006)
  • Paloff & Pratt (1999) pose that the instructor in an online class is responsible for facilitating the personal and social aspects of an online community in order for the class to have a successful learning experience.
  • Olcott & Wright (1995) assert that the responsibility for instructional quality and aggregate effectiveness of distance education rests with the instructor.

ImageCreating a framework for Effective Online Discussions
This week as I’ve been participating in a MOOC called iFaciliate a 5 week online MOOC for educators which modeled what’s needed to establish effective discussions. This course refers to the Community of Inquiry model, which synthesizes pedagogical principles and needed instructional practices for effective instruction in the online learning environment. I discussed this model in a previous post.

How to Create the Framework for effective discussions:

  • Establish guidelines and purpose for threaded discussions –  outline these at the introduction to the course.
  • Establish a Social Presence – this is where participant and instructor, introduce themselves to classmates –  sharing, introducing and connecting. Also known as the orientation  phase, Social presence is defined as the ability of learners to project themselves socially and affectively.  When students feel connected with other learners, feel part of the class and community, they are more likely to engage in discourse and discussion about course content.
  • Make the technology transparent – the discussion needs to be about the students – the content and the learning, not the technology, i.e. the Learning Management system or the discussion threads. When students are participating in online discussions, the ‘technology walls’ should disappear – just as when we are in a classroom, is the focus on the whiteboard, the power point slides or the professor’s tie for that matter?

Check back this week for part 2: How instructors can effectively facilitate online discussions.

A MOOC for Online Instructors

Great news for online instructors – a Massive Open Online Course, iFactilitate, just started this week targeted to instructors, professors or anyone else interested in developing skills to facilitate discussion, interaction and engagement in an online learning community. The beauty of a MOOC is that there is a rich source of knowledge and information powered by the WWW, yet the goal is to apply, discuss, share and actively participate.

Objectives of iFactilitate
What encourages me about iFacilitate is it appears to be rooted in a sound instructional strategy, is focused (within a tight time frame of five weeks), and has a website with a user-friendly interface. In addition, learning outcomes are described which I’ve outlined below [excerpted from the website].

By the end of this workshop [iFacilitate] you will be able to begin to:

  • Create, facilitate and assess asynchronous online discussions;
  • Use a blog to aggregate remix, re-purpose, and feed forward meaningful content.
  • Discover opportunities afforded by Web 2.0 technologies for online learning communities.

Learning Theory behind a MOOC
A MOOC is based on the theory of ‘connectivism‘ which embraces an active learning approach. One learns through participating in activities. The connectivist theory, also known as the Social Learning Theory developed by Lev Vygotsky is similar to a constructivist approach, yet emphasizes doing –   discussing, reflecting and  applying. Learning comes through action. For example, discussing, writing, blogging (in this case) and teaching. Furthermore, iFactiilate describes how the learner in this course will learn, which is by:

1. Aggregating
2. Remxing
3. Repurposing
4. Feeding Forward.

Click on iFacilitate, to learn more about what each of these means within the context of the course, and /or to sign up.

Keep Learning 🙂