Vol. 7, No. 3: November 15, 2000
Keys to Facilitating Successful Online Discussions
by Donna Raleigh, Coordinator
of Technical Training and Instructional Technology,
Media Development Center, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
"This is fun!"
Last week a student new to online discussions posted these words. Her class
meets via distance education once a week and, for the remainder of the time,
the students and faculty share ideas in a discussion area in WebCT. Of course,
the purposes for online discussions extend far beyond "fun." Nevertheless,
an online discussion that is purposefully planned and skillfully implemented
will not only meet the instructorís objectives but will engage students in ways
that make learning fun.
What is an online discussion?
First, letís establish a common understanding of what is meant by the term "online discussions." For the purposes of this article, online discussions are the asynchronous posting of electronic messages by members of a class in a continued conversation on topics designated by the instructor. By establishing this narrow definition of online discussions, we can better focus on how to plan and implement successful online discussions.
Uses for online discussions
Online discussions are particularly useful for instructors facilitating online courses and for faculty who teach to remote sites via interactive television. However, faculty who teach traditional courses that meet only once or twice a week also find them beneficial, as do faculty who need to be absent from class occasionally.
The actual application of online discussions can be divided into two lists.
The first list details the conceptual bases for online discussions, and the
second deals with the practical applications of online discussions that lead
to the conceptual learning. Since both lists are incomplete, feel free to email
me to add to the lists.
Some conceptual uses of online discussions
- Share knowledge. Every student comes into your class with a unique
set of experiences and learning. Sharing individual "expertise"
through online discussions provides enrichment for others and helps the student
expert clarify his/her own knowledge on the subject. For example, I gave my
educational technology students a case-study scenario regarding copyright
fair use. They were to discuss to scenario and determine if fair use privileges
were violated. One of the students happened to know a lot about copyright
law and became our copyright expert for the remainder of the class.
- Reflect on ideas. Reflection helps students clarify concepts and internalize the information-to-knowledge process. By participating in an online discussion, the process of writing can aid in that reflection process. Additionally, often students who are reticent in class participate fully in the online discussions so the idea exchange is richer for all.
- Improve critical thinking. As students interact with each other and
with the instructor through the activities employed in online discussions,
they often must compare, contrast, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate. Thus
they have the opportunity to improve their critical thinking skills.
Application ideas for online discussions
- Case scenarios. Students can be divided into small groups or work in large groups to respond to cases that help them apply theories and concepts presented in class or in readings.
- Brainstorming. As a pre-class or post-class activity, students can use the online discussion format to brainstorm ideas on a topic.
- Role-playing. In small groups, students can each assume roles and develop scenarios around course content.
- Reaction postings. Students can react to posted readings, assigned readings, or web sites. Also, discussion questions related to the course textbook can provide the basis for discussion.
- Expand course content. Students may read different articles and post summaries or find appropriate web resources and post links. Students may react to each otherís postings.
- Extend in-class discussions. Itís frustrating to cut off a really good discussion at the end of class. Online discussions can quickly be established to allow conversations to flourish outside of class time.
Planning and implementing the online discussion is key to avoiding the common problems experienced with online discussions. For example, requiring students to post a minimum number of times can avoid having too little discussion. Assigning students the roles of discussion leader or moderator gives them ownership in the success of the discussion and helps to keep the discussion on topic. Answering the following questions during the planning and implementing stage will result in higher success rate.
How will students access the online discussion?
- Who your students are, where they are, and what resources you have available will influence your decision regarding where to create your online discussion. Do all students have access to electronic mail? If so, you can collaborate with your campus mail administrators to establish an e-mail class discussion list. Equal access is clearly the advantage here; the disadvantages are that the messages come individually to each studentís email account, are not threaded, and are counted against the studentís disk quota if quotas are in place. Also, additional discussion lists would need to be created for students to work in small, private groups. Despite the disadvantages, discussion lists can be an effective means of facilitating online discussions.
- Do all students have access to the web? If so, groupware products such as WebCT or Blackboard offer threaded discussion areas and make it easy to place students in small groups. These products are available through the Wisconsin Web-Based Learning System. In addition, there are some free groupware products available over the web. These products, such as NiceNet, are not as fully featured as are the above groupware products but generally have an easy-to-use, threaded discussion area.
Once you have chosen your online discussion tool and become familiar with it, you are ready to structure your discussions.
Using Guidelines and Procedures to Establish a Safe Learning Environment
To ensure success of your online discussions, you will want to establish some guidelines and procedures to govern your studentsí use of the discussion area. Setting up expectations, how-toís, and guidelines aid in creating a learning environment that students will want to use and will enjoy using. Here are some questions to consider as you prepare the guidelines and procedures.
- What "netiquette" will be observed? Certainly emotional outbursts, name-calling, and other "flames" should be outlawed. Are misspellings acceptable? Grammatical errors? Will four letter words be tolerated? Establishing these rules up front will help students understand what comprises the "safe learning environment."
- To what extent will the online discussions be student-led or student-controlled? Will students have a say in determining the netiquette? Will students be asked to lead, facilitate, or summarize discussions? If so, define what you expect of the students in these positions and assign these duties for each discussion before it begins.
- What role will you take? Will you participate in the discussions as an equal with the students? Will you "lurk" but not post, leaving the discussion to the students? Will you only participate to play devilís advocate or to interject a new idea or to redirect the conversation? Do you plan to respond to students individually or to the class as a whole? Consider how much time you have to devote to the discussion and emphasis you wish to give it. For your sake, keep your role manageable. You may become overwhelmed if you agree to respond to each posting of each student. Whatever role you choose, let students know and then maintain consistency.
- Will you establish minimum or maximum number of postings per student per topic or per week? This avoids too little or too much posting and can prevent discussion domination by a small number of students. It also makes the reading manageable for you and the students.
- Will you grade the discussion? If so, how? Will it be part of the discussion grade for the course? Will it be based on quantity, quality, both? Again, students need this information up front.
Once students have the access, how-toís, structure, and expectations, let the interaction begin! During the first week of class, be prepared to handle student frustration with technology and also to provide encouraging words. A get-acquainted topic for the first week helps students to become comfortable with each other and assures students that they can use the technology. This can take many forms. A childrenís literature course began its online discussions by having each student compare him- or herself with a character in a childrenís book. Students in another class were asked to describe themselves using eight nouns.
Whether online discussions provide exclusive student-to-student contact or supplement in-class contact, through careful planning and implementation, they can be used in a variety of creative ways to help students internalize knowledge and share ideas in enjoyable and enriching exchange environments.
Jonassen, David H. (1996). Computers in the Classroom: Mindtools for Critical Thinking. Merrill Publishing.
Palloff, Rena M. and Keith Pratt (1999). Building Learning Communities in
Cyberspace: Effective Strategies for the Online Classroom. Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Note: Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt's Building Learning Communities
in Cyberspace (mentioned above under "Resources") was reviewed
in the May 2000 issue of Teaching with Technology Today. Read
the review by M. Kayt Sunwood of UW-Superior and Jane Henderson of UW-Stout.