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.
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In small online courses, instructors have the luxury of participating in frequent personal interactions with students in online discussions. But doing this with more than 15 students can be difficult. Fortunately, there are ways to maintain instructor presence and participation in online discussions without becoming overwhelmed. In an interview with Online Classroom, Heidi Ash, online program director for the Department of Health Studies at Texas Woman’s University, offered the following ways to address this issue:
Faculty use asynchronous discussions to extend and enhance instructional practices in the online classroom. It is widely reported that online discussions play an integral role in facilitating students’ learning, as well as fostering dialogue, critical thinking, and reflective inquiry (Kayler & Weller, 2007; Morris, Finnegan, & Sz-Shyan, 2005). Despite faculty’s knowledge that discussion forums can serve as a useful learning tool, online discussions are not easy to establish and manage.
When Hayley Lake, lecturer at Eastern Washington University, got the opportunity to develop an online version of Survey of Alcohol & Drug Problems, a multidisciplinary course that draws students from a variety of majors and backgrounds, she knew that online discussions would be an essential feature of the course. She had taught the course in the face-to-face environment and saw a lot of room for improvement—despite the diversity of students and the inherent potential for lively discussions, the course lacked engagement and rigor.
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.
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.
The discussion board in Kathleen Lowney’s large blended (or hybrid) section of introduction to sociology at Valdosta State University wasn’t serving its intended purpose of engaging learners with the content and preparing them for face-to-face class sessions. She tried dividing the students into smaller discussion groups of 50 and then 20, and the results were the same: the weaker students waited until the last minute and essentially repeated what the better students had posted previously. When she replaced the public discussions with private journals, the quality of students’ posts improved, as did their grades.
Discussion boards are often viewed as the heart of online courses, and for good reason: the students can interact with one another 24/7, sharing, debating, and offering ideas, insights, suggestions, and information that stimulate the learning process. Yet challenges do happen in discussion, and these can be formidable. Left alone, they can quickly limit the effectiveness of any discussion and create problems throughout the online course.
Shrinking budgets and increasing enrollments are putting online instructors in the position of teaching larger classes. Accommodating more students means rethinking how you teach your courses. Otherwise your workload can quickly become overwhelming.