Many faculty who teach online classes are dissatisfied with the quality of online discussion. Discussion in our face-to-face classes seems so robust and interesting. Why is it so much harder to facilitate a satisfying discussion online? A couple of reasons:
- Information-gap discussion doesn’t work well online: Most discussion in the face-to-face world involves what are called “information-gap activities”: I have some information; you don’t have the information; so you ask me for the information and I provide it. You are then satisfied. But this type of activity doesn’t work well online – in fact, it curtails discussion. Online discussion tools are tailored for more expansive discussion, which many instructors find more challenging to facilitate.
- Everyone has to participate online: If you were to audit your face-to-face classes, you’d most likely find that a core group of 5-10 people actually does most of the talking; the other 20-25 people are mostly silent. So your face-to-face class only seems to have more robust conversation – the majority of your students don’t actually get much from it. But herein lies an opportunity: the quietest, most withdrawn students in your face-to-face class can be the most talkative and interesting online. Still, it’s challenging to involve everyone in an online discussion.
Here are some tips for getting the most from online discussion:
- Require a product of discussion: The best discussion, online or face-to-face, involves negotiation between and among participants, brings in strong evidence to support points, and reaches a conclusion. These good things rarely happen when the goal of discussion is merely … discussion. The traditional discussion prompt – “Make your point and respond to one other person’s post” – is practically a recipe for boring discussion. I like to require a “consensus document” as a product of online discussion, which forces students to come to agreement on a problem or controversial issue and then justify their agreement or lack thereof.
- Use small groups: Group activities in the online environment are more work to set up – assigning students to small groups takes a bit of effort and organization. But most online instructors swear by the quality of small-group online discussion. How much can you really add to a discussion between 25 or 30 people? Not only is it intimidating to talk in front of that many people, there’s usually nothing new to say after 10 or 12 people have had a say. But in a group of three or four students, it’s much easier to venture a fresh opinion or offer a new perspective or point out neglected evidence.
- Use the “post before reading others’ posts” setting: Version 10 of D2L has a new setting for discussion topics. The setting keeps a student from being able to see anyone else’s posts until s/he has posted to the discussion board for that topic. This setting should help to cut down on some of the “lurking” and “loafing” behaviors you see on discussion boards, and allow you to assess an individual student’s contribution more accurately.
- Use a grading rubric that emphasizes quality over quantity: Students will give you what you ask for. If you ask for a certain number of posts, students will provide it – and usually no more. But if you set a number of postings as a baseline and then establish criteria based on quality of postings, you’ll get higher-quality postings. A rubric is a great way to communicate these standards.