Online discussions are often implemented in college classes to allow students to express their understanding and perceptions about the assigned readings. This can be challenging when the reading is particularly complex, as students are typically reluctant to share their interpretations because they are not confident in their understanding. This can inhibit meaningful interactions with peers within an online discussion.
You’re asking the wrong question. No, seriously, you’re probably asking the wrong question.
Yeah, that’s a pretty bold statement. But I’ve read tens of thousands of questions meant to prompt discussions in online course rooms, and the odds are I am right.
I am not an athlete. I lack coordination and have some physical limitations. My husband, on the other hand, is an excellent skier. He isn’t a teacher but he believed I could learn to ski, convinced me to try, and partnered with me in the learning process, like the best teachers do. Learning to ski taught me 10 coaching strategies bridging four areas: establishing a safe space to learn, sharing responsibility, providing feedback, and empowering the learner. I apply these strategies to facilitating online discussions, but they relate to a range of learning contexts.
Is it time to change the online learning conversation? The debate about whether online courses are a good idea continues with most people still on one side or the other. Who’s right or wrong is overshadowed by what the flexibility and convenience of online education has offered institutions and students. Those features opened the door, and online learning has come inside and is making itself at home in most of our institutions. No doubt the debate over the value of online learning will continue, but perhaps it’s being judged by the wrong criteria.
The discussion forum is an essential part of online courses. It’s where students interact, reflect, exchange ideas, and expand their knowledge base. The quality of the discussion forum depends on the ability to develop a sense of community, the clarity of the discussion questions, and the use of a grading rubric that includes standards of performance.
Most online faculty know that discussion is one of the biggest advantages of online education. The increased think-time afforded by the asynchronous environment, coupled with the absence of public speaking fears, produces far deeper discussion than is usually found in face-to-face courses.
In the online instructional environment, the discussion questions, posts, and responses are the lifeblood of the course. Although writing formal papers and completing quizzes are typical components of online courses, the gateway to new learning occurs within the discussion forums. The discussion board expands and contracts, or breathes with the relevancy of the question to the course, current events, and experiences of the faculty and students. The development of engaging discussion questions and statements can be as easy as watching the news, reading current articles, or reviewing internet news sites, and then relating the content to the course. Faculty should use their imagination to connect current events to course-related material. Questions should be not answered from lists from the textbook or the regurgitation of content from the current unit’s assessment.
Because online courses have fewer opportunities for the spontaneous, real-time exchanges of the face-to-face classroom, online instruction requires a deliberate approach to design and facilitation. As Bethany Simunich says, “Online, learning doesn’t happen by chance.” In an interview with Online Classroom, Simunich, associate director of online learning at Kent State University, offered the following techniques to improve an online course:
If you’re having trouble getting students to engage in the discussion forum, perhaps it’s time to rethink how you use this tool. “Think of it as a place to foster interaction between the students through a variety of means rather than just asking them questions, although that’s great too,” says Chris Laney, professor of history and geography at Berkshire Community College.
Clear expectations, structure, and instructor intervention can go a long way toward getting students highly engaged and highly interactive in online discussions.