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The textbook in the online educator preparation course I was redesigning would not have been my first choice. It was dry, theory heavy, and difficult to read. I wanted to supplement it with an engaging discussion activity—a student-directed one—that would motivate students to read it and think critically about how it applied to them professionally. In particular, I wanted students to choose how they responded to the text and which part of it they responded to. Additionally, I wanted to make sure that students met the core module learning objective in a way that was relevant to them. Finally, I wanted students to engage with one another. While traditional discussion forums combine all these goals into a single discussion, I thought it best to separate them into different discussions to ensure that each goal was met.

Thus, I had students post to three separate forums each week. The Digital Power-Up forum ensured that they understood the material by focusing on the content of the week’s reading. The Connect to Self forum had students reflect on how the material connected with their professional experience. And the Peer Takeaways forum required students to respond to others so they could benefit from each other’s insights.

Format

Although I could have simply crafted discussions around these goals in the learning management system, that would have limited students’ options for posting messages. Thus, I decided to host class discussions on VoiceThread, an online collaborative tool that allows users to asynchronously post media and video, voice, and text comments. Educators and designers can easily adapt the components of the activity to other learning platforms. The user-friendly interface for allowing students to comment and post in multiple ways is the main reason I chose VoiceThread. It provides an easy way for students to access the collection of slides for each module and upload their slides.

In VoiceThread, the first slide the students saw each week had the title of the week at the top, the learning objective at the bottom, and directions for the three-pronged activity in the center (Figure 1).

Colorful slide titled "Week 3: "Implement & Supervise VT Book Discussion." Learning objective in small text at bottom of the screen. Middle of screen includes directions for Digital Power-Up, Connect to Self, and Peer Takeaways activities.
Figure 1. Screenshot of first VoiceThread slide in week three

Digital Power-Ups

Students could choose from three prompts to respond to the text. The prompts were as follows:

The goal was to ensure that students read the book chapters and encourage them to connect with the text using higher-order thinking skills. Students found a variety of ways to respond to the prompts. For example:

Connect to Self

Each week this section included a different guiding question based on the assigned reading. It was meant to help students make connections between themselves, the text, and the module learning objective. I wanted to further push the students’ learning to an applied level and help them see how what they had learned related to their professional lives. This component also ensured that they would clearly address the lesson’s objective.

For example, the learning objective in week three was to “relate the curriculum evaluation process and product to curriculum improvement and staff development opportunities.” The guiding question in Connect to Self was “What has supported/hindered your professional learning? What is a good way to motivate staff?”

Peer Takeaways

This section served as the accountability measure for the students to read, watch, or listen to what their peers post each week. This also created an authentic audience for the students as they developed their responses, knowing their peers will go through what they post.

When students are prompted to “reply to at least three posts,” they are not necessarily looking to learn from their peers. One student reflected on this and explained that the Peer Takeaway format actually pushed them to read and watch more of their peers’ posts.

I wanted to create a task in which the students are able to exchange perspectives on the same topic. The prompt for this section stayed the same each week and was always due by the following week’s discussion. For example, students responded to the “Week 1 Peer Takeaways” prompt during the second week of class.

Student perspective

As part of a study, I analyzed student reflections about the discussions and the format to better understand the effectiveness of the model’s components. Students had a positive response to this discussion format. They believed using the Digital Power-Ups each week was rigorous, challenged their thinking, and provided a way to present their learning in creative ways.

“Essays are not for everyone,” one student reflected. The power and passion that came through the readings of the poems helped the class grasp the importance of task differentiation. Other student reflections showed that they appreciated the opportunity to create because they were able to make resources they could use, they learned so much more from their peers’ creations, and they had the opportunity to prove their learning through creation.

Note that the Digital Power-Up forum was open-ended, whereas the Connect to Self section had specific prompts each week for students to respond to. The students benefited from having both probing formats each week. One student stated “it really was like I was using different parts of my brain.” Another student reflected on how they had “opposite” effects: “It did not limit what I was thinking about and analyzing from the reading. The Connect to Self and Peer Takeaways were nice for the opposite reason: they made me focus on something that maybe I wouldn't have thought of on my own.” The combination of the Digital Power-Up and Connect to Self sections gave one student “a better understanding of my own outlook on the curriculum while seeing in what ways I could improve it.”

Conclusion

Educators and designers can revamp the traditional “response to text” activity to better meet content objectives and pedagogical goals. I wanted students to not feel limited in responding to questions, while ensuring that they understand critical parts of the text. I also hoped they would share their perspectives as they engage with the text. This discussion activity helped foster student agency and sense of community and provided students a platform for rigor and differentiation. Most courses have a component in which students need to read a text and engage with it. This is one example for instructors and designers to see the impact the design of the activity has on students.


Fatemeh Mardi, PhD, is an instructional designer. She is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.