Thursday, October 31, 2013

Rich On-line Discussion

Image courtesy of jscreationzs /
This week I led a workshop at Marlboro College Graduate School titled "Online Training Tools and Learning Management." During the session there was some discussion about the challenges of promoting meaningful interactions in on-line forums. This is a favorite topic of mine and I look forward to getting feedback and ideas from anyone who might read this. Here are some of my strategies.
  • Be explicit about what meaningful interaction looks like to you. I find that students who have never been in an online course have no idea what their job is in an asynchronous discussion forum. Students who have navigated the expectations of another online instructor may also not know what you want.
  • Avoid reading summaries. I ask the participants to NOT summarize any assigned materials. Students who are used to submitting reflections on paper tend to start their posts by summarizing. While summaries offer the instructor an easy check that students did the reading, they are death to discourse. No one wants to read ten or twenty summaries of what they themselves have just read. I do ask them to reference what they read and explain just enough so that we understand their position.
  • Provide a compelling discussion prompt. Sometimes I spend an hour thinking of a pithy open ended question and sometimes I just ask students to explain why something from the assigned material resonated/disturbed/confused/provoked them. I avoid questions that have an answer.
  • Reply to multiple posts. When I engage in the conversation I don't want to interfere. I tend to summarize a group of posts, highlighting points of agreement, disagreement and possible directions for further discussion.
  • Email individuals. I do not give feedback within the forums. I don't say good point or I think you missed the point. I don't want students to shape their interactions to get my approval or avoid my public punishment. I do try to send every student a short email early in the course acknowledging something clever or helpful that they contributed to the discussion. And I will email a student asking them to do more of this and less of that.
  • Shape group behavior. I will make comments that shape the direction that the group is going. I will redirect a side conversation. I will encourage the class to disagree. I will ask the class to consider a new or related question.
  • Continue a discussion. Sometimes the last couple of posts of the week or module are meaty, but unlikely to be read. I will occasionally move a promising forum to the next module and ask students to continue the discussion, maybe linking a new topic to the conversation in progress.
  • Writing scaffolds. I have found that asking students to use these paragraph/idea starters helps them to contribute meaningfully. [An important idea I've learned] [This idea makes me think] [Carrying this idea forward] [If so, then what] [My question] [My theory] [My experience] [To improve my practice] [Putting our knowledge together] [Something I disagree with] [I'm confused by]**
  • Metacognition. One way I have found to get students to consider what makes for a meaningful post is to ask each to pick one post that they contributed and one post that a fellow student contributed that adds value to group learning and explain why. This is a useful mid term self-evaluation exercise, and can lead to me clarifying my expectations when necessary.

** Thanks to the Knowledge Building community and specifically Dr. Jianwei Zhang for the writing scaffolds technique.

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