The use of online discussion boards is increasing — I’ve seen some instructors use class blogs, and encouraged students to post questions and discussions, or perhaps posted a discussion question and required students to respond (via blog comments, for example). Some instructors use class wikis. Many course management systems (CMS) now automatically include discussion boards. I was thrilled to find that this was a feature of our new CMS that I’ll be using this summer. But then I remembered my experiment last summer, using a course blog and asking students to post comments or questions on the posts. It fell flat. What went wrong?
As I’m considering what to do differently, here are a few things that I’ve gleaned from my readings about how to promote effective discussions online.
1. Make it comfortable
Last year, I just encouraged students to “post questions or comments” on the blog. I thought that the need to get help on the homework or content would be a sufficient driver to do so. I guess not. It’s sort of sticking your neck out to post something online to a group of people you don’t know very well. This year, my first homework assignment includes some “getting to know you” questions, such as their major and interests and hobbies. Part of the assignment is to then post whatever they feel comfortable posting on the class discussion board. This serves several purposes, (a) getting them to discover the discussion board, which is where some other assignments will be posted, (b) giving them a chance to get to know their classmates, and (c) making their first posting something that is not about the content, but something that is hopefully more interesting. This kind of “ice breaker” is considered best-practices for online discussion boards, as is providing a “social cafe” part of the board for off-topic posts.
This relates in part to what is called “social presence,” which is the sense of knowing someone online. Getting a sense of their personality and selves through their postings. There is a lot of research to suggest that people engage more fully in online discussions when they feel like they know the people they are talking to. This is an important consideration for the instructor, too — how do you seem like “you” online? Maintaining an informal tone can help.
2. Give them a reason to do it
Again, last year, I thought that the motivation of getting help on homework would be sufficient, but it wasn’t. This year, I’m having students submit two types of assignments to the online discussions. I’m hoping that by having them posted in the discussion forum, it may spark some discussion, or at least students can read what their peers write and see if their struggles are similar to those of their peers. The two assignments are: (1) Post-reading, pre-class preparation questions, asking them to observe something in the natural world or explain something from the reading. Since the point is to make sure that they do the reading and that they’re thinking about it, rather than that they get the answer right, the option to see each others’ answers is OK. The other assignment is (2) posting pre-quiz review questions. I’ve told them that if there are no questions, there is no review. My hope is that they can start seeing each others’ questions and hopefully responding, and maybe even use this as an online study group. We’ll see if it works.
3. Tap in to their desire to share
Derek Bruff wrote on his blog, “Agile Learning” about Clay Shirky’s book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. I haven’t read the book, but Derek’s posts provide a really useful summary.
In Chapter 3, he focuses on what motivates people to contribute to…. social initiatives. He draws on research by Deci, Benkler and Nissenbaum, and others to describe four common intrinsic motivations: the desire to be autonomous, the desire to be competent, the desire for connectedness, and the desire to share.
So, Derek asks,
“How do you tap into your students’ desires for autonomy, competence, connection, and sharing?”
There are many ways to do this in-class as well, of course, but online, one might ask, what do students want to share?
4. Make it authentic
To answer the above question, what do students want to share, I think it’s important to make the online assignments authentic and interesting. In other words, it’s important to provide well-designed questions for the discussion, that help students stay focused and interested. Derek suggests using questions based on the reading for that day, but one has to be careful to ask questions that students want to answer, that they are interested in sharing their opinion about. Fact-based reading quizzes don’t promote an interest in connectedness. You either got it right or wrong, what is the motivation to see what your classmates said, other than to see if you got it right? Rather, thought-provoking questions are more likely to spur authentic discussion.
5. Instructor’s role
And what do you do, once discussion gets rolling? Mostly, just stay out of the way — don’t respond to every comment, so students don’t feel like you’re Big Brothering. If you act like a good listener, you can know when it would be a good time to interject or add your insight. If students get off-topic or post inappropriately, it is better to contact them separately, rather than shaming them in public. Your people-skills are important online, just as they are in-person. But it might be useful to post some summarizing comments at the end of the discussion, to wrap it together. And of course, before things get started, it’s important to make it clear to students why they’re doing this, what the payoffs are, and how it relates to the topics being covered in-class.
I’m really torn on this one. Early talks that I saw on the topic of online discussions said to make it really clear to your students what you expect of them in their discussion posts, in terms of quantity and quality. That students should be graded on whether they post, but also on the richness of their posts, since many instructors find that students will post a cursory and shallow response in order to get credit, but that that doesn’t fulfill the spirit of the assignment. If one wanted to grade on richness, one can easily use a “0/1/2″ scale, which is very helpful for grading such participation-oriented assignments. “0″ means you blew it off, “1″ is that you did a somewhat adequate job but with something lacking, and “2″ is the default, for solid work.
However, I have several colleagues who argue against providing grading incentives for items such as clickers, or discussion boards. This kind of motivation, called “extrinsic motivation”, since it is tied to something that someone is imposing on you from the outside, can sometimes become the end in itself rather than the learning. My colleague Ian Beatty argues that clicker use in class, for example, should all be for the intrinsic, self-directed motivation of learning the material and doing better in the course. Derek Bruff wrote on this topic too, in the same posts about the Cognitive Surplus book, about how assigning credit for participation can negate the social contracts in the classroom to participate. Could the same be true of online discussions? Does assigning a grade reduce the motivation to authentically participate? The research on grading clicker questions seems to suggest that it might — in classrooms using high-stakes grading incentives for correct answers to questions, the conversation devolves from making sense of the material to desperately deciding on what the right answer is.
I think the best answer, for most of us, might lie somewhere in between. Provide some credit for doing the assignment, enough to push them to the discussion board, but not so much that that is the only reason that students are engaging in the conversation.
7. Other ideas?
Some other suggestions that I got from a talk by John Thompson of Buffalo State College at a conference a few years back:
- Give specific guidelines and rubrics regarding acceptable responses
- Don’t just settle for opinions: Opinions must be supported with rational discourse.
- Don’t have too many, or too few, discussions. Use enough so that there is fresh content, but few enough to avoid dilution.
- Bring in a guest participant
- Publicly acknowledge good participation in order to encourage it
- Ask for more detail when students submit shallow comments
- Relate your personal experiences, and keep some humor and fun in it
- Have students lead discussions on a rotating basis
Please share your experiences or best-practices on using online discussions in the comments!
Image by JohnnyMrNinja