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Can Online Discussions Be Relevant Learning Experiences?

Mar 16, 2020 10:00:00 AM

Let’s begin with the obvious. We’re in the business of building interactive and engaging online discussion platforms. We really do believe the answer to this question is, ultimately, yes. Class discussion, whether conducted face-to-face or virtually, is probably one of the most valuable teaching strategies we have in our toolkit. Students learn better when they’re involved and engaged with the course material, their instructor, and their fellow students. 

Still, even in the traditional classroom, class discussion can be hard to manage. Instructors who want to encourage discussion routinely make class participation a required and graded activity. In the online classroom, that approach has had less success, especially when discussions unravel altogether as students rush to post a comment before the deadline. The tsunami of responses does little to move the discussion forward or deepen anyone’s understanding of the material. And, yeah, it can crush an instructor’s will to live.

Fortunately, the education community is starting to have some insightful discussions about online discussions. Listening to those conversations, and sometimes taking part in them, has helped us shape how we’re designing features and functions in Harmonize, the online discussion platform that integrates easily with whatever LMS you’re likely to be using. But a great class discussion isn’t just about better technology tools (though in the online world that certainly helps). It takes real dedication to keep discussions vibrant and on point. And it takes real skill to turn those discussions into graded assignments that don’t provoke eyerolls or outrage from your students.Watch the VideoSo, in the spirit of collaborative knowledge production (we’re all about that!), we’ve outlined a few things you can do to make discussion assignments really work—for you, for your students, and for your institution.

Preventing the Dreaded Pile-On

It happens. Students, whether they’re pressed for time, juggling work and classes, or, yeah, disengaged from the course material, sometimes do as little as possible to meet a course requirement. And when that requirement is “post once and respond twice” to a discussion board, students can be, well, let’s just say, quite literal.

We’ve seen instructors come up with some crazy workarounds to prompt students to post early enough to make a real contribution to their class. And while we like to spend time on the big picture stuff (making the online discussion experience more like the social tools students use in their everyday lives), we get that simple features can make a world of difference to instructors. That’s why we just introduced Multiple Due Dates to Harmonize. It’s a feature that lets instructors customize when discussion posts are due throughout the grading period, giving them new flexibility when it comes to establishing expectations and encouraging (okay, requiring) participation.

Moving Beyond the Transactional

While this new functionality will help instructors manage their classrooms more efficiently, we’re pretty certain that most of you didn’t get into the education game to impose draconian rules on your students. You’re there to teach, instruct, inspire, and open minds to new ideas and ways of thinking. (By the way, if we haven’t mentioned it before, you rock.)  With that in mind, we need to ask ourselves a hard question: are online discussions really working toward any of these goals? We know providing multiple due dates will help you and your students stay on track with discussion assignments. But moving away from the transactional business of “posting once, responding twice” to make the kind of transformational change you want to see in your classroom requires more.

Here are some ideas we’re hearing about that you might want to check out.

Explain the purpose of class discussion

Before you click away, think about this for a minute. Most course syllabi list the requirements for class discussion (in greater or lesser detail, depending on the class and the instructor), but when was the last time you had a frank discussion with the members of your class about what, exactly, class discussion is supposed to accomplish? You’re there together to generate knowledge. Yeah, we know sometimes that’s a tough sell, but reminding your students of exactly what their participation can be an important first step.

Build a rubric for grading discussions

Okay, so maybe you have a few students who aren’t really motivated by collaborative knowledge generation. But they do understand what a grade means. And you can build a grading rubric for class discussions as you would for any other desired outcome. The folks at University of Central Florida have pulled together some great examples that help students understand it’s about quality, not quantity. And whether they’re simple or complex, rubrics that clearly state what you expect are usually appreciated.

Have a discussion about class discussion

Chances are this isn’t the first online class your students have taken and they likely have already formed some opinions about online discussion boards. Give them a chance to air their concerns. At the very least, it demonstrates that you understand the online experience can be a challenge for some students. At best, you’ll learn something about where your students are coming from and set the tone for open and inquisitive discussions.   

Putting It into Practice

When it comes to making online discussions more relevant, it really does begin with you. Don’t be afraid to experiment, especially with the tools that Harmonize offers. Don’t always ask for written responses: Harmonize supports rich media and students can even annotate their videos directly from the platform. Encourage the use of reactions (likes and other responses) for a quick check in or to vote for the best response. Try out anonymous posting and see what kind of difference that makes. If you have a big class, create smaller discussion groups to help build communities. Or rotate responsibilities: have your students create a discussion assignment and a rubric for answering it.

In the online classroom, class discussions aren’t just relevant, they’re one of the few ways you have to understand what’s working in your course and what isn’t. If you’ve found creative ways to keep online discussions interesting and relevant, let us know in the comments. (Where else?)

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