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How to Design and Facilitate Online Discussions that Boost Student Learning
Countdown on the old movie screen.
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In an online learning environment, the discussion board is the heart and soul of the course. The posts, queries, responses, and exchanges aren’t just about learning the course content—they also help to humanize the course. The trouble is, of course, that it’s not always easy to get students to participate in the kind of deep learning instructors envision when they design their online courses. Students tend to simply agree with each other to fulfill their required number of posts, and the discussion remains at a superficial level. In Design and Facilitate Online Discussions That Enhance Student Learning and Engagement, Meixum Sinky Zheng, PhD, an assistant professor and instructional designer at the University of the Pacific, shared strategies to creating better online discussions. This article is based on the ideas she discussed in that 2016 program. Designing online discussions “The first step toward successful online discussion is the design of the online discussion activity itself,” Zheng says. “You should avoid questions that simply ask students to state and share facts from the readings or from the videos. Instead, I usually use questions that students can interpret from different perspectives . . .  case studies or scenario-based questions work well.” It also helps to mix things up a bit. If every assignment asks students to read some text or watch a video and then share their response or comment on a fellow student’s post, it quickly becomes boring for everyone. Zheng suggests three alternative discussion board assignments: Zheng also suggests moving beyond your learning management system (LMS) to add some variety to course assignments. She uses both VoiceThread and Vialogues. Facilitating online discussions When facilitating online discussions, Zheng likes to use the BDA model, which focuses on what online instructors should be doing before, during, and after the discussion. Before discussion Here are some sample comments for communicating your discussion expectations to students: “I also like to provide discussion post examples to students—examples of both good and poor discussion posts,” says Zheng. “The good examples show students what I expect from them. The poor examples show students what they should avoid doing. Students always appreciate examples, especially when they are not familiar with online discussions.” During discussion Maintaining a strong instructor presence without dominating the discussion can be a tough balancing act. Zheng remains visible in online discussions by checking in a few times a week to ask questions that extend students’ thinking, confirm ideas discussed, answer questions posed, or refer them to other resources. She also provides encouragement, noting that one easy-to-overlook aspect of facilitating discussion is remembering to acknowledge desired behaviors. If you see students doing what you asked—posting early, responding to peers with helpful and constructive information—that’s something to highlight in your course announcements. It’s motivating for the students you praise for doing a good job and can encourage others to step it up. Here are some examples of compliments you might post in course announcements: After discussion As the discussion comes to a close, it’s important for instructors to summarize the discussion, building on the ideas students shared and highlighting key points, as well as clarifying any misinformation and answering any remaining questions. When assessing students’ online discussions, Zheng uses four categories to evaluate performance: completeness, quality, peer interaction, and timeliness. In the same way faculty encourage students to provide meaningful feedback to each other, instructors should provide specific, personalized feedback to students on how they can improve their discussion posts. Below are examples of individualized feedback Zheng shares with students privately. Examples of positive reinforcement of specific behaviors Examples of feedback to improve specific behaviors References Bono, E. (1985). Six thinking hat. Retrieved from http://www.debonogroup.com/six_thinking_hats.php deNoyelles, A., Zydney, J., Chen, B. (2014). Strategies for creating a community of inquiry through online asynchronous discussions. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 10(1), 153–165. Retrieved from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol10no1/denoyelles_0314.pdf Kelly, R. (2014, September 18). Strategies for managing online discussions. Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/online-course-design-and-preparation/strategies-managing-online-discussions Pawan, F., Paulus, T. M., Yalcin, S., & Chang, C. F. (2003). Online learning: Patterns of engagement and interaction among in-service teachers. Language Learning & Technology, 7(3), 119–140. Vacca, R. T., Vacca, J. A. L., & Mraz, M. E. (2016). Content area reading: Literacy and learning across the curriculum (12th ed.). Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Zheng, M., & Spires, H. (2011). Teachers’ interactions in an online graduate course on Moodle: A social network analysis perspective. Meridian, 13(2).