What makes a good online discussion?

Oct 24, 2016 | Education | 0 comments

Let’s talk about discussion spaces.

And let’s be honest about them. They are still the most ubiquitous, easy to engage with and most accessible way of facilitating interaction within an online space.

You could argue that with the advent of video, whether it be webinar-style synchronous class sessions or asynchronous video chats, that we’ve moved beyond the archaic discussion board. While technically this is true, these technologies still aren’t as reliable as typing into a box and hitting ‘submit’, which means online text-based discussions still have an important role to play.

With that in mind, and barring any exploration of how to ‘spice up’ online discussions with additional tools, let’s just talk about what it means to facilitate interactions using only text.

In a face to face class, instructors have a captive audience. The students are in the same room, and are able to be prompted, re-prompted and called upon if crickets are heard in the room. This means if a discussion prompt falls flat, it can be remedied quite easily, with further questions, clarifications and challenges.

For online, this prompting isn’t as readily available, so this means the initial prompt needs to hold its own. Let’s look at a few examples.

“Who was the first President of the United States. Discuss and be sure to post replies to two of your peers”

The above example, while quite satirical of whats out there, is quite common in form. Students are asked to answer a question that has one answer, then respond to their peers. The question that is most useful when writing online discussion prompts is ‘Where will this go?’ As instructors we have to anticipate what this discussion will look like. We have to see the future, for the sake of engaging our learners and for the sake of facilitating further interaction.

The above ‘discussion’ has nowhere to go. The answer is George Washington and the only possible responses are “Yes, I agree” and “I don’t think that’s right”. The conversation is not really a conversation, but merely a list of responses and then responses to that response.

Many forum discussions are just extensions of the example above.

Find the answer to a question in the textbook. Answer it. Respond.

As you can see in the above diagram, this isn’t so much a discussion as it is a series of many small interactions that don’t interact with each other. You have Student A who only ever has to interact with Student D as a response to the question, then there’s not motivation for the conversation to continue. It is dead.

So how do conversations occur in the real world? They revolve around shared interest, problem solving, previous experience and motivation to engage. Rarely do you sit around with friends an family and engage in a conversation like this:

A: The Human head weighs 8 pounds

B: Yes it does.

C: You’re right:

B: The Sky is blue

C: I read that too.

A: I can see it outside. You’re right.

So how do we facilitate a good discussion from the first prompt?

“Reflect on what you read in this module. Respond to your peers”

Let’s be honest, reflection is boring and reflection is probably the laziest way to facilitate discussion because it is way too general, there’s no motivation for the student to engage because there’s nothing challenging them besides the content. In the real world, most challenges come from other people. Most debates come from disagreement. It’s true that some readings may contain controversial topics, but the above prompt doesn’t tap into that. A students reflection might amount to “I didn’t know much about [topic x] and I’m surprised to learn that [insert random fact]”. The above prompt doesn’t force critical reflection or application of the knowledge at all.

The fact that self-motivation is extremely important when learning online isn’t really helped when students are given tasks that could be seen as chores. The second a student sees value in what they’re doing, they will be more engaged.

This is what we’re aiming for.

So how do we set this up?

Make it ambiguous

First, there should be no correct answer to the prompt, but many interpretations and potential solutions. In a class where the majority of ‘stuff to learn’ is about memorization and knowledge, this is where problem-based activities come in. Contextualize that knowledge, provide a real-world scenario in which students cannot solve alone.

Force students to work together to solve a problem

A prompt or a question might have many answers, or only one answer, and the best way to facilitate this is to pose a question that requires students to talk to each other to find those answers. Let’s look at the George Washington question from earlier. A way to expand this is to ask an expanded version.

“Why is George Washington so revered in American culture? How does his status as a slave owner conflict with the Bill of Rights statement ‘all men are created equal’ and how can this conflict be reconciled?

There is no one answer to this question, and the search for all the answers and interpretations will force the students to think of alternate perspectives and debate each one as to their validity.

Link discussions with assessments

When activities are presented to students that are islands of themselves and don’t built to anything, this is not representative of a true learning experience outside of the classroom. When we finish school there is always a requirement to keep learning new skills, but in the workplace, for example, we learn new facts, which integrate into skills, which integrate into projects and creative endeavours. Sometimes learning experiences lead to a dead end, but most times they do build upon each other.

To provide support, to prepare students, to allow them to ask questions and to see multiple points of view on a topic, try making a discussion an integral part of an assessment task, such that students cannot complete the task up to standard without engaging in the discussion. Also, be transparent about this fact and tell your students. If they know an activity will help them to succeed in the class, chances are they’ll engage in it without that motivation. The key here is that the activity SHOULD actually help them. If they enter the discussion and find it useless in their preparation for an assessment, you’ve lost them.

These are just three simple ways to re-think how discussions are set up in an online class. There are many more, but these might be the first you think about. Without the ability to hound people into responding, like we can in class, its important that we setup scenarios that naturally engage the learner. A challenge to set might be to see how far the discussion goes without your involvement. Leave the prompt, and see what happens. If it falls flat, and you need to step in, then do so, and try again, and as always, ask your students for help. They are your best resources for improving their own learning experiences.


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