Facilitating & Managing Discussion
Managing Online Discussions
One of the most important elements of any online learning environment is the discussion forum, where students and faculty share resources and knowledge and discuss topics related to their learning asynchronously.
Asynchronous discussions are not constrained by a specific time or place, so students and the instructor can review and contribute to the discussion whenever they are able.
Advantages of using asynchronous discussion forums:
- Students can express ideas when they are motivated, at their own pace, taking time to think through and edit their responses.
- Students can state their views and ask questions in an environment that does not favor the most assertive or outgoing.
- Faculty and peers can provide prompt feedback.
- A permanent or semi-permanent textual trace of discussions can be used to prepare for quizzes and essays, and for research purposes.
- Instructors can use discussion records to assess student participation.
- Discussion can establish a healthy social environment that fosters active learning.
Preparing Students for Online Discussions
Preparing Students for online Discussions
Typical instructor concerns about online discussion include:
- What if you pose a question and no one responds?
- How do you start conversation and establish connections that keep people interested?
- What aspects of discussion are conducive to learning?
Because online discussion will be new for many students, as well as instructors, using these strategies at the beginning of the course can help familiarize students with the online discussion environment, providing a foundation for more substantial work.
Create an informal area, such as an online café or lounge, where students can engage in friendly and casual conversation in order to get to know each other on a more personal level, which can in turn facilitate more active discussion posts.
Propose creative methods for introductions. For example, have students provide a description of the relationship between the online learning environment and their work or volunteer activities.
Create a Q&A forum where students can pose questions about process, class administration and general content and all students can gain insight from responses.
Establish rules of netiquette and discussion postings. A sample list might include these expectations:
- Be brief while being clear.
- When addressing or replying to an individual, use his or her name.
- Keep the primary discussion area as content-rich as possible. If you want to tell someone "I agree" or "thanks," send a personal message.
- Controversy and exchange of opinion are excellent opportunities for learning and growth if done respectfully. It’s okay to disagree with another student, but keep the discussion respectful — just as you would in a face-to-face situation.
- Keep private comments private. Use e-mail for messages between yourself and another student.
A primary way to improve the quality of online discussions is to follow some guidelines that will make it easier for students to contribute and increase their confidence in posting.
Use meaningful and descriptive subject lines
Discussion forums are organized in a hierarchy of folders, subject headings and group names. Use subject lines that are specific and clear so participants can navigate easily and trace threads accurately. If the class is working in teams, create labeled folders for each team.
Frame the discussions
Post a statement or question with phrases or other “cues” that students can use in their answers. For example, if asking students to describe an organization and provide details of the department heads they will interview and the questions they will ask, their responses can include headings labeled “Organization,” “Department heads” and “Questions.”
Ask questions at the end of posts
Instead of burying questions in the middle of a post, instructors and students should place questions at the end of their posts where people will remember and be more likely to respond to them.
Define the expected style
Specify the expected style for responses, such as academic, essay or informal clearly in your post, along with any other any requirements, such as the need to include citations and data.
When an assignment is new or may be unclear, show an exemplary post or posts to model the expected response.
Overly long responses may spoil the flow of a discussion, so set limits on length by defining a maximum and minimum word count. If you are concerned about stifling creativity, let students know that it's okay to add content when they have something important to say.
For long posts, ask students to format for clarity using paragraphs, summary statements, headings, graphics, bullets, numbered lists, tables, or other appropriate formatting.
For more strategies to manage online and classroom discussion, talk with an Instructional Design Consultant. Click here to make an appointment or call 475-2551.
Facilitating the Discussion
Depending on the class, you may have to do more than simply ask the question to get the online discussion going. And once the momentum starts, you may have to step in at times to keep things on track. Here are some ideas you can use to start and manage online discussions.
Start the Dialogue
Starting the Dialogue
The way that you begin a discussion and frame a question shapes the student responses. Remember that student involvement and ownership of a discussion can make it more successful.
Make the learning personally relevant by allowing students to relate and apply coursework to student needs, interests, and workplace or other life experience.
Use open-ended questions to start the discussion and encourage students to ask questions as well to provoke dialogue within the group.
Encourage negotiation within the group by beginning the process.
Begin a conversation. Communications Professor David Neumann finds that collaboration begins best with a conversation.
"The most important thing for successful student team projects is setting up specific communication expectations early, supply online icebreaker exercises, give students a chance to participate in the course before assigning teams, checking in to group conferences to make sure interaction is healthy," says Neumann. "But the most powerful method for motivating students to engage in group projects or any other form of online interaction is to have a conversation with them. I have found that creating this type of personal connection, even if only once, is extremely important."
Use breaking news relevant to the course to spark conversation. A timely article, particularly one that is somewhat controversial, can engage the class in an active discussion. Debrief the conversation with follow-up questions about the relationship of the article to the course content and whether any opinions were changed or reinforced.
Ask an open-ended question with a specific objective, requiring students to reference the source material upon which they base their commentary. Topics with controversy or divergent opinion will engage people in discussion.
Include others in the discussion. Bring in guest "speakers" to answer questions posed by students, or ask students to interview experts in the field and post summary comments, highlighting aspects of the interview that are important to the learning experience.
Frame questions to elicit the content and style the topic requires. For example:
- If you ask, "What are your thoughts?" replies will be casual opinion, not based on texts or sources.
- If you ask, "Define three elements of X," replies should be structured, brief, and based on specific course content.
- If you ask, "Contrast X with Y and analyze the differences with respect to z, citing sources," replies should be structured, contain critical thinking, and cite sources.
Don't just request a post:
- Start a debate
- Ask for a critique
- Expect an interview
- Establish a panel discussion
- Provide a reflection
- Solve a problem
- Ask an open-ended question that requires thought and research
Give students feedback on their discussion contributions. Students expect timely and direct feedback, but you should not always post these publicly. A message of praise or a message with pointers for improvement should be sent privately, while messages explaining or contributing to course content should be included as part of the class discussion.
For example, Student X posts a thoughtful question about the topic and Student Y gives an excellent response, synthesizing previous discussion and readings.
- Post a comment saying that Y has provided thoughtful commentary and asking what else can be added or what do authorities on the topic have to say
- Send a private email to Y praising the thought behind the post.
Another example: The instructor posts the question, "What insights have you gained about this topic now that you have studied the divergent viewpoints of Author A and Author B? Which author's position is more compelling? Explain why."
- Student X posts a message describing the viewpoints of the two authors but does not offer any new insights or explanations.
- Send a private email to X pointing out that the assignment is to provide insights, not just descriptions.
Redirect the Discussion
Redirecting the Discussion
Discussions often go off on tangents; bringing it back can take some work. Some techniques are:
- Restating a comment made earlier that may have been ignored
- Ask for interpretations and criticism of the original topic.
- Ask someone in the group to re-focus the discussion.
Here's an example of a redirect by the instructor:
- Student X posts a good definition of the issue with references to readings. Student Y replies with a related comment about a similar situation in her workplace.
- Student Z posts a sympathetic message to Student Y and adds her own story; here, the instructor begins to be concerned that the discussion is going off on a tangent).
- Student Y posts a question about Student Z's workplace; the discussion is definitely off on a tangent now. It’s time to redirect.
- The Instructor mentions that student Y's story is valuable and points out that the central issue has not yet been covered and asks, "Look at page 70 in the text. What does the author suggest and how would you change or improve on this recommendation?"
Require Active Participation
Require Active Participation
Expect students to act as discussion leaders as well as participants. Charge students with finding new resources or information and offering an analysis or critique of their content. Alert students who hang back.
For example, Student X says, “I'm taking the role of discussion leader for this topic. I've attached a link to a website I think offers an analysis different from the text. I have my own opinions, which I'll share. Do you think the analysis on that site is valid?” After a few days of discussion, it is clear that student Y is not participating.
- Send an email to student X expressing appreciation for finding the website.
- Send a message to student Y asking her to participate in discussion, and reminding her that participation counts toward her grade.
Establish the Type of Discussion You Expect
Establish the Type of Discussion You Expect
Types of structured discussion include:
- Argumentative discussion
Assign groups to debate or take on an advocate's role, challenging groups to come up with a consensus opinion or a set of divergent viewpoints with valid justification for each view. Students must support their opinions with data or by authorities on the topic.
- Goal-directed discussion and exchange around a specific topic or inquiry.
- Building a resource
Assign groups or individuals to describe a topic fully to contribute to a final repository of knowledge and exchange. As a final goal, the class might create a glossary of terms, a set of clearly defined concepts, or various existing analyses of an issue.
Sharpen the Focus
Sharpening the Focus
Use critical thinking strategies to keep the dialogue from being shallow or diffuse. Sharpen the focus of the discussion or get students to dig deeper by:
- Identifying direction
Refocus discussion by rephrasing certain parts of the dialogue, or by weaving in new ideas. Look for common elements, define terms and establish options for direction.
- Sorting ideas for relevance
Not all ideas are equal. Engage the group in deciding which ideas have the most importance. As instructor, remain neutral while framing the different views and approaches for student comment.
- Focusing on key points
Highlight the most important ideas, connections and potential meanings. Allow the students to take stands and offer experiences while you mediate, observe and reflect.
- Making connections
Shift a discussion that has grown stale to gain a new perspective on assumptions or the approach to commonly held beliefs. Offer different interpretations or invite investigation into alternative ideas.
- Honoring multiple perspectives
Ask students to find patterns and state different responses to an issue, while remaining neutral, to gain new levels of understanding of the complexities. Offer explorations of commonly held beliefs and challenge the group to consider one another's ideas in greater depth.