Discussion is a critical component of any online course, but instructors are often puzzled about what makes some discussions lively and others dead. To fill this gap, He and Gunter examined the factors that lead to participation in virtual teams and came up with some principles that can help guide instructors in cultivating a robust discussion in online courses.
Reputation. People will share knowledge with others when it enhances their reputation. It is easy to forget that students who speak in class are speaking not only to the instructor but to their classmates as well. They are cognizant of how they appear to their classmates. Thus, they are less likely to take risks when there is an opportunity to be wrong in front of others.
So instead of asking questions with objective answers that can be wrong, or are the answers that the instructor has in mind, it is better to ask questions that allow students to express and defend their own views. In particular, questions that allow students to bring in their own experiences to illustrate a point provide an easy way to contribute without fear of being wrong.
Replies. Students are more likely to get involved in a discussion when they think that someone is reading comments, and replies are a measure of others' attention. Most online faculty require students to make one or more replies to other students in each forum, but they often forbid students to make simple “I agree” affirmations. While these signs of approval should not count toward a grade, there is no reason to forbid them. Just as we are encouraged by others liking our Facebook posts, students are encouraged by seeing other students approve of their posts, and so these signs of approval should not be discouraged.
Activity. Students are more likely to get involved in a discussion that is already active. Prior activity gives students more ideas for their own posts and demonstrates that others consider the topic interesting, which influences the students' own perception of how interesting the discussion is. One good way to preserve activity is to space out postings. Students might be required to make an initial posting on Monday or Tuesday and then reply on Wednesday or Thursday. The instructor can also set a regular schedule for adding his or her own comments. This gives the student a reason to periodically check in to get the latest updates.
Emotional bonds. Students are more comfortable participating when they feel an emotional bond of trust and comfort with others. This is what distinguishes discussions in an online course from the flaming posts on YouTube videos. The instructor can facilitate this bonding by requiring students to post a bio at the beginning of the course, and the instructor should take the lead by providing a bio for himself or herself. Students, and instructors, should be encouraged to make video bios—either using a webcam shot or “digital storytelling” format of narration over imagery—that better humanize them to others.
Task conflict. A discussion where everyone is just repeating what others say in different words is not interesting. Faculty should facilitate “task conflict,” meaning disagreement about the task, not a personal disagreement, in order to generate interest. A discussion question might ask for positions on a controversial issue, one that allows for reasonable positions on either side. Of course, the faculty member needs to monitor the discussion to make sure that it does not slip into personal attacks, but fortunately this is rarely a problem in online courses. A boring discussion is more common than one with too much heat.
Leadership. While faculty normally set a minimum for participation, some people will naturally go beyond that and become leaders in the discussion. This is not a bad thing. These leaders can help seed the discussion with new ideas, and a group without leadership will have trouble getting going.
The trick is to avoid having these leaders monopolize debate and thus quash activity by others. Because there is no time limit to discussion, as there is in a face-to-face course, one person's posting does not prevent others from making postings. But too many postings by one person can create the impression of an unbalanced discussion. This can happen when one person seems compelled to reply to all others. Talk to anyone who seems to be monopolizing discussions, but understand that any group needs leaders, and so allow people to take leadership roles that help provide the nudge that gets discussion going. You can even reach out to individual students to ask them to take leadership on certain discussions, as a coach does with particular players. Students will generally feel complimented and respond positively when this happens.
Following a few simple principles will lead to exciting discussion in any online class.
He, J. & Gunter, G. (2015). Examining Factors That Affect Students' Knowledge Sharing within Virtual Teams, Journal of Interactive Learning Research, v. 26, n. 2, 169-87.