Encouraging Online Learner Participation

Sustained, high-quality student participation usually doesn’t happen on its own in the online learning environment. The instructor needs to model participation, create assignments that encourage it, and foster an environment that supports it. Here are some ways that I promote student participation in my online courses.

Use discussions as assignments. Rather than assigning an overall participation grade, I treat each one-to-two-week discussion as an assignment. The discussion assignment is typically tied to an independent assignment. For the discussion portion, each student reviews the work of one or two classmates and is required to post comments and/or questions. The independent assignment is worth 20 points and the associated discussion assignment is worth 10 points.

I find that students do not necessarily need much preparation to interact in these discussion forums after I model participation for them. I post substantive comments, and in my modeling I never have yes or no questions.

Create informal conversation spaces. The assignment and discussion forums are not the only forums in my courses. I have two other forums: The Coffee Shop and The Teacher’s Room. The Coffee Shop is for students to engage with each other on topics other than the content of the course, which helps build community and makes students feel comfortable with each other. The personal relationships built there can carry over into the content-related forums, and I think this informal space helps make posting in all forums feel safer.

The Teacher’s Room is for administrative issues and questions and comments about current and past assignments. I advise students to check this forum regularly for important information, and I encourage students to answer each other’s questions there. Sometimes students will post additional resources or they’ll bring up issues that aren’t necessarily related to the current week, but they add to the learning experience.

Encourage and recognize go-getters. In each course there are typically two to four students (out of 15) who are real go-getters. They help set the tone of the course and can be very helpful in getting others to participate. I’ll encourage their participation by sending them private emails saying something like “I really like what you had to say about … . Thanks for contributing.” I’ll also recognize them publicly through an announcement in The Teacher’s Room or an email to the entire class when I feel that a student has made an insightful comment about the course content.

Use student moderators. After I have moderated the discussion forum for three or four assignments, I turn moderating duties over to the students so that they become facilitators of the conversation, which creates a positive learning environment in terms of power-sharing, involvement, and ownership of the course.

Students can select which forum topic and week they would like to moderate on a first-come, first-served basis. The responsibilities are described in the instructions, and a week before they are to moderate I send out a reminder about their responsibilities, which include:

  • Focusing the discussion on course content
  • Encouraging new ideas
  • Initiating further discussion through questions or observations
  • Finding and communicating unifying threads
  • Drawing attention to opposing perspectives
  • Summarizing and posting a report about the discussion

I let the student moderators take the lead. I do not participate until the latter part of the week’s assignment, but I do participate because it’s important that the students don’t feel abandoned by the instructor, particularly when the discussion is facilitated by a student who may not be very confident in the role.

An interesting dynamic occurs when students moderate. Students who either have moderated already or who will moderate in the future are very supportive because they’ve been in the hot seat or will be there soon.

Another wonderful quality of having student moderators is that they bring a different perspective to the course. I look at the content in a certain way. Student moderators—especially good ones—will often look at the content from a different perspective. They will raise topics that I would never have thought of talking about. They bring in different ideas—some do extra research to make sure they are well informed—and the conversation often goes off in impressive directions.

Students are usually quite positive about the moderating experience. When I survey my students, they typically say that moderating deepens their understanding of the content, that they enjoy taking on a leadership role, and that they see the benefit of having others’ viewpoints brought to the forefront.

Joan Thormann is a professor in the Division of Educational Technology at Lesley University and coauthor of The Complete Step-by-Step Guide to Designing and Teaching Online Courses.

Reprinted from Online Classroom, 12.8 (2012): 1-2. © Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.