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Coaching Strategies to Enhance Online Discussions

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.

Create a safe learning environment.

Learning to ski is scary. Falling is embarrassing. Who wants to look foolish? My husband/coach shared his learning experiences with me and vividly described what to expect, which reduced my anxiety. Similarly, online discussion facilitators should:

Share responsibility.

The coach is an expert, no question. One minute watching my husband slalom “effortlessly” made that clear to me. He planned, explained, and modeled what I needed to do. Then it was my turn. As online learning partners, teachers should:

Provide timely feedback.

As we skied I heard: “Push your tips together,” or “Shift your weight forward.” Similarly, feedback during online discussions is critical to advance interaction and redirect unproductive threads to enhance learning. Feedback may be the most valuable and challenging coaching responsibility.

Empower the learner.

Sometimes my coach was by my side to lend a hand when I fell. Other times, he forged ahead and I followed. In time, he empowered me to choose the trails to pursue. Eventually I found my way down the mountain. To empower learners in online discussion, facilitators can:

Before I met my husband, I never thought about learning to ski. I lacked context; I didn’t see myself as a skier. Many students may feel a similar disconnect if they believe a course’s content is personally irrelevant. In order to facilitate learning, coaches and teachers must break through this divide. Despite the vast differences in setting, the teacher-as-coach metaphor works because both seek to connect learners with the content, provide a safe space for learning, and empower students to become independent learners.

Baran, E. & Correia, A. 2009. Student-led Facilitation Strategies in Online Discussions. Distance Education, 30(3): 339-361.

Mandernach, B., Krista, J., Forrest, D., Babutzke, J. L., & Manker, L. R. 2009. The Role of Instructor Interactivity in Promoting Critical Thinking in Online and Face-to-face Classrooms. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 5(1): 49-62.

Lolita Paff is an associate professor of business and economics at Penn State Berks and is chair of the 2015 Teaching Professor Conference. You can follow her on Twitter at @1313lolita