Learning research indicates that people learn better in the presence of some emotional connection—to the content or to other people. Creating this emotional connection is particularly challenging in the online classroom, where most communication is asynchronous and lacks many of the emotional cues of the face-to-face environment. Nevertheless, it is possible to do, with a learner-centered approach to teaching and a mastery of the technology that supports it, says Rick Van Sant, associate professor of education at Ferris State University.
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Online discussions are sometimes difficult to get going, and often the students (at least at first) seem to respond too superficially, punctuated by an occasional treatise by an overeager student. Here’s how I jumpstart discussions in my family relations online course.
Online educators have long known that asynchronous discussion is deeper than face-to-face discussion due to the increased thought time and the “democratization” of the classroom. But one major disadvantage of traditional online discussion is that it is separate from the lecture.
As more and more courses go online, interaction and knowledge building among students rely primarily on asynchronous threaded discussions. For something that is so central to online learning, current research and literature have provided instructors with little support as to how they can facilitate and maintain high-quality conversations among students in these learning environments. This article responds to this need by offering three strategies instructors can use to ensure educationally valuable talk in their online classes.
Several years ago, a colleague suggested that having students lead discussions in the online classroom would be a good idea. I agreed and searched the literature for research on this topic but found nothing. No one at that point had been looking at having students moderate, or they hadn’t written about it. I still thought it was a good idea and decided to pursue this line of research by having my students moderate and follow up with an end-of-course student questionnaire.
Meaningful online discussions that promote learning and build community usually do not happen spontaneously. They require planning, good use of questioning techniques, and incentives for student participation.
Conventional wisdom about synchronous vs. asynchronous communication says that while they both have their places in the online classroom, adult learners prefer asynchronous communication for its flexibility and that asynchronous communication allows more time for reflective thinking. However, a paper presented at the 2004 meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) contradicts these notions.
Asynchronous online discussion plays a key role in humanizing online courses. Asking provocative questions is an important part of getting students to participate in discussions, but the right questions alone are not always enough to create a truly connected class.