Tips for Enriching Online Discussions

Decorative: Six overlapping speech emerging from six separate computer mice


Clicking the image above will take you to "How to Create Engaging Discussion Forums" -- and ten suggested activities to do exactly that. 

"The Secret Weapon of Good Online Teaching: Discussion Forums" (post) outlines the benefits of using discussion forums in online teaching (especially for equity) and offers "six simple ways to foster meaningful conversations in an online forum."

  • Each point is discussed more fully in the original post.

A. (Equity) Benefits of Using Discussion Forums

"Online discussions are the equitable and inclusive workhorse of online teaching."

  • "Using assistive technology, students with disabilities can use an LMS forum more easily than a Zoom discussion." 
  • "Students can submit discussion posts at any time of the day or night, and they don’t need a fast internet connection to do so."
  • "They’re not required to show their physical surroundings to participate."
  • "Forums get students to interact with one another, which is crucial to helping them feel connected and engaged in virtual classrooms."

B. Ways to Enhance Online Discussions

1. "Take Part in the Discussion" 

  • "Stay in the (virtual) room." 
  • "Post clarifying questions." 
  • "Praise positive contributions." 
  • "Probe for more detail." 
  • "Clear up misconceptions." 
  • "Guide and shape the learning — just as you would in person — to help students get to where you want them to go."

2. "Be Strategic about Your Participation"

  • Don't let it "becom[e] a major drain on your time and energy."
  • "Block off [short blocks of] times in your weekly calendar to post on the discussion board." 
  • "[P]osting a few days a week should do the trick."
  • "[U]se your written contributions to facilitate learning, just as you do verbally in your face-to-face teaching."

3. "The Better the Question, the Better the Debate"

  • "[A]sk open-ended questions and avoid the yes-or-no kind ... to sustain a meaningful conversation."
  • Ask "the kind of question that gives students something to talk about."

4. "Ask Students to Write about Something They Find Naturally Interesting -- Like Themselves" 

  • "[A]sk students to apply course content or concepts to their own lives and experiences."
  • "Take a concept you’re teaching, and ask students to post about where else they’ve seen or learned about it ... [or] interacted with the concept."
  • "The resulting kaleidoscope of perspectives can offer students a rich web of connections."

5. "Structure the Online Conversation"

a. "Without any structure, you end up with a lot of students pulling a 'post and run' — an industry term for posting an obligatory comment in a forum, and then never returning to engage with others."

  • This "clearly doesn’t lead to meaningful, sustained conversations."

b. "So establish a few simple ground rules" such as the following (most elaborated in the text):

  • "Set two deadlines a week — the first for an initial post and the second for a minimum number of replies (usually at least two) to other students’ comments."
  • "Provide a rubric or a checklist ... to clearly communicate the criteria for success." 
  • "Discourage students — explicitly — from posting 'Yeah, I agree' kinds of replies."
  • Consider "requir[ing] students to post their initial comment before they can read what other students have shared."

6. "Aim for Organic, Authentic Conversation"

  • "[T]ry to foster the kind of natural dialogue you would actually want to join."
  • "Maybe ... take a cue from how people regularly communicate in digital spaces, and invite students to use emoji, GIFs, memes, videos, and the like in their posts."
  • "Ask them to post a GIF that depicts how they are feeling about a particular topic or task."
  • "Have students create and share a meme that represents how their semester is going."
  • "We can communicate powerfully and connect meaningfully online. Let’s learn from our texting and social-media habits to help us do so in class-discussion forums."
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