Engaging Students in Online Discussions

The class discussion has been an integral element of teaching since at least as far back as Socrates. Online courses often attempt to recreate the experience and every LMS has tools to facilitate discussions. However, online discussions are fundamentally different from classroom discussions. Perhaps most obvious is the need for all students to participate in the online discussion. While students in face-to-face classes often elect to only observe, active participation in online discussions is usually necessary and may be the only way for instructors to know students are actually attending class. This has lead to the “post once, reply twice” mantra so often used in online discussions. There are several problems with this.

First, we need to recognize that there are at least three different ways in which discussions might be used in a class. The first happens when instructors want students to answer questions that are more closed in nature or otherwise provide some feedback to the instructor. If most students will be posting similar information then this isn’t really a discussion. If the discussion tool is used for this, then students begin to see these “discussions” as rather pointless. There isn’t much one can say in a reply to another student that isn’t just repetitive and of limited value. It might be better to have students write a short essay or homework activity that is simply handed in.

The next form of discussion occurs when the instructor asks an open-ended question or for an opinion about a course topic. This is often similar to the type of discussion the instructor might use in a physical classroom. This is certainly an acceptable use of the online discussion, but “post once, reply twice” will likely undermine the effectiveness of the discussion. Students who might not have participated in a physical class now have to come up with something to say in three different ways. What often happens is students do not really engage in the discussion but look for something they can easily agree with and add a brief comment that might be little more than a rephrasing of what the original poster said. Students become “hit and run” participants who look for the easiest path to a couple posts and then disappear from the rest of the discussion. Now, instead of a few students who might have carried on an effective and engaging in-class discussion, many students are adding clutter and students and the instructor have to dig to find the real meat of the discussion.

The third approach is much less common but potentially the most powerful. For lack of a better term, I’ll call this the student-directed discussion. Instead of the instructor asking the questions, students are given a task. For example, in a course on technology and ethics I asked students to search the web for examples of something they felt was an unethical use of technology. Students had to find an original topic (i.e. if someone else posted on the same idea already the student had to find something else), explain the ethical dilemma as they saw it, and discuss their personal reaction. By way of example I shared the story of a student charge with academic misconduct for running a Facebook study group. With this type of discussion, every student has to post something original and natural discussions form when students are intrigued by something, disagree, or are outraged. Of course, a “post once, reply twice” requirement might be okay here, it still results in truncated discussions as students do the minimum and feel they are done.

In order to really encourage ongoing discussions, I have made a few changes that have so far been effective and well-received. First, classes run Tuesday – Monday. I found that many students wait until the weekend to do their discussions and that left little time for follow-up comments. Perhaps a Wednesday – Tuesday approach would be even better. I also require students to have their initial post done by Wednesday. This ensures all students have time to review and respond and even come back to see who responded to them. The result is actual back and forth discussions. Finally, I also changed how discussions are graded and my expectations. There are two key aspects to this. First, students are asked to “post once, reply as needed”. By leaving the number of replies open, students are free to focus more on the discussion and less on a numeric requirement. Second, instead of earning the required points each week, students have the whole semester. In other words, student engagement could ebb and flow (just as it would in a physical class) depending on their interests and weeks with higher numbers of replies would earn more points and offset weeks with fewer replies. A class might have 15 discussions with a total of 375 points during the semester, but earning 10 points one week and 50 the next is perfectly fine. It might seem like this would open the door to students gaming the system and doing very little and then flooding the final discussion or two in order to make up for all their missing points. However, having done this now in five or six different courses over the past three to four years I can say that has not been an issue. In fact, more often than not students end up doing MORE than the minimum each week. I frequently have students posting 5-8 times or more during a discussion. Here is a document I created to explain this process to students. So far it has been highly successful and I can’t imagine I will ever go back to a “post once, reply twice” model.

One last thing. While I do have a rubric for assigning points to discussion posts, I almost always give students full points (unless late or really doesn’t add much to the discussion). Again, while it might seem like students would just start to add short comments with little substance, the opposite is more often the case. Post length does vary, but many students end up writing some fairly lengthly comments. I think this is because students are actually engaged in the discussions and not simply going through the motions.

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