Jump-Start Online Discussion with Unconventional Prompts

Credit: iStock.com/Planet Flem
Credit: iStock.com/Planet Flem
Discussion forums are ubiquitous in online education despite getting mixed reviews from students and teachers. Faculty complain of students giving only perfunctory responses, while students lament discussion questions that allow only cursory answers. The problem is the prompt is often written in language requesting a mini-academic paper or a yes-no answer rather than a real discussion. Crafting a good discussion question is tricky, but one option is to move beyond the traditional text prompt by using media such as images, videos, and podcasts. Media capture our attention in ways that text cannot. A video clip of Neil Armstrong taking his first moonwalk can accompany a short prompt about the end of the Space Race. Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photo of a hungry mother with children during the Great Depression can drive a discussion on economics. Video and audio prompts can elicit ideas that might not have come to students with a text prompt. An instructor might also post multiple images on a topic to suggest different perspectives to get students thinking more broadly, such as multiple depictions of civil rights protests by athletes throughout the 20th century.

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