Online discussions aren’t a new thing anymore; they regularly occur in online courses and courses with online components. What we’ve learned for sure: they’re a mixed bag. On the plus side, they make participation safer. Students can make a post, walk away, and not worry about nonverbal, face-to-face feedback. Comments are written, which means there’s more time to craft a thoughtful response and more opportunities to work on writing skills. The discussion has permanence. Student comments stay put for the duration of the exchange. The whole interaction can be reviewed and analyzed in great depth. When students are assigned to respond to comments, that ups the chances of peers learning from each other. And the discussion can occur asynchronously.
The downsides of online discussion balance its impressive benefits. It lacks spontaneity, the energy that flows from a dynamic exchange of ideas. Students usually participate in response to prescribed protocols. They must make a comment and respond to two other posts. The linear nature of these exchanges makes it hard to follow a discussion thread and see the connections between comments. Threads read like disjointed monologues. Moreover, online discussions tend to be short. They don’t build toward a conclusion. Students do what they’re required to do but with little enthusiasm and one wonders how much learning.
The effectiveness of online discussion has been limited by the imposition of face-to-face protocols in an environment where they don’t particularly fit. We’ve tried to structure them as traditional discussions: an exchange of comments, often required, and posted during a designated time period. The technology works against this kind of structure. We need to start thinking of online exchanges as a different form of interaction.
A participant in one of my recent workshops described what he called the “online discussion environment,” an idea he said he got from an article by Gao (2011). The problem, he said, was that you can’t see where the discussion is going or has been when online exchanges occur linearly. The posts appear one after another, and before long, any given comment is lost in the sea of comments surrounding it. But in the online environment, it’s possible to position what’s being exchanged differently. The posts can be arranged visually, and that’s how Gao handled them, using the idea of concept maps.
Concept maps are all about visually presenting relationships. Gao developed a discussion map using a collaborative concept map website. It puts the discussion prompt at the center of the map, with posts radiating out from it in bubbles and responses to posts appearing as sub-bubbles. Discussion participants also used lines to connect posts across and within bubbles. Comparing the number of connections students made in a conventional online discussion with those made using the discussion map, Gao found that on the map, they made significantly more connections and there was greater development of threads within the discussion. Even though the study was small, Gao’s students responded to the discussion map positively, reporting that it was easier to extend and build on ideas.
Some of the problems that regularly occur in face-to-face discussions have migrated into online discussions. Most students aren’t eager to participate in either kind of discussion. Many have yet to discover that they can learn from other students’ ideas and insights, and most don’t like to be required to participate in what they consider boring discussions. Aloni and Harrington (2019), in an excellent article on improving online discussions, recommend devoting time to explaining the purpose of discussion and using discussion starters, whether provocative thinking questions, scenarios, role plays, or other creative alternatives; they also encourage teachers to work on developing effective facilitation skills.
Designing learning experiences for an online environment gives us the opportunity to think about different structures. Unfortunately, it’s easy to forget that design details are malleable. They can be changed. Online discussions make it possible to learn from interactions in a different way. That learning is more likely to occur if we are responsive to the features of the online environment.
Aloni, M., & Harrington, C. (2019). Research based practices for improving the effectiveness of asynchronous online discussion boards. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 4(4), 271–289.
Gao, F. (2011). Designing a discussion environment to promote connected and sustained online discussion. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 29 (1), 43–59.