In small online courses, instructors have the luxury of participating in frequent personal interactions with students in online discussions. But doing this with more than 15 students can be difficult. Fortunately, there are ways to maintain instructor presence and participation in online discussions without becoming overwhelmed. In an interview with Online Classroom, Heidi Ash, online program director for the Department of Health Studies at Texas Woman's University, offered the following ways to address this issue:
Reduce the number of discussions. A common mistake online instructors make is trying to fit too many online discussions into a course—often one per week. This schedule does not allow enough time for students to process what they're learning in order to be able to contribute meaningful content to the discussion boards, and it creates a workload problem for the instructor in terms of keeping up with the discussion and providing grades/feedback to students, Ash says.
Rather than holding weekly discussions, Ash designs her courses so that each module, which lasts between two and four weeks, includes just one discussion. “I teach writing and literature. Having a new topic to think about, to read about, to digest and discuss and then do an assignment on every week—I don't think allows enough time for students to actually accomplish any real, deep learning. That's why I tend to set up my courses a little bit differently,” Ash says. “It gives me as the instructor more time to read those discussion forums and respond to them. It gives students more time to read and digest the material, think about what they really want to say, and post without having to feel rushed by getting things out every week on a certain deadline.”
Reducing the number of discussions is one thing that instructors could change to help manage online discussions. “I run into very few non-profit institutions where there is any kind of [rule] as to how many discussions you have to run in a semester,” Ash says.
Select good discussion topics. Not all topics lend themselves to the online forum. When selecting discussion topics, think about aspects of the course that students typically have difficulty with or those that tended to generate the most dynamic discussions when you taught the course previously (online or face-to-face).
“You start to realize the areas that students almost always struggle with. You can add information [to the course] to head some of that off before it starts, but then you also know where you're going to have to stop and give them time to wrestle with ideas, talk among themselves, and learn through that fashion,” Ash says.
Post discussion summaries. Rather than trying to respond to each student's posts, create a post that summarizes the discussion and acknowledges their contributions.
As Ash reads through the discussion board she copies quotes from students (with attributions) and pastes them into a Word document she has open on a second screen. She uses the Word document to help craft the summary post and saves it as a reference to keep track of which students she has acknowledged in the discussion. She recommends positively acknowledging each student on the discussion at least once during the course, providing a personal touch. “I think students respond well to that,” Ash says. “I have not gotten the sense that they are upset that I am not talking specifically just to them.”
The discussion summary also provides the opportunity to reign in a discussion that has gone off in the wrong direction.
Use groups. If it's a large course, you can simply divide students into groups so that they engage only within the group. “When I do groups, I typically have them in the same group throughout the semester. … I typically get the best discussion results with students who have had time to grow familiar with each other,” Ash says.
Another technique is to have students collaborate within their groups on a message to post to the main discussion board. “If you have 25 students in a course and split them into groups of five, you end up having only five discussion posts on your main forum rather than 25. So that will cut down some on your reading and grading, and it also creates yet another level of engagement for [students] to go through before posting to the discussion forum,” Ash says.
This collaborative approach to discussion groups can be used for jigsaw activities, where each group addresses a different aspect of a topic. For example, in a discussion on Madame Bovary, one group might research the author's biographical information, one might look at thematic elements, and another might consider the historical context and then post to the main discussion forum. “So you can take a lot of different aspects and put them together. Instead of everyone posting in the main discussion forum on the same topic, you have them all bringing together different parts of this topic to the table to talk about.”
Provide grading rubrics and examples of exemplary posts. Different discussions have different purposes and the grading scheme and rubrics should reflect these differences. Ash recommends that discussion count for at least 30 percent of the overall grade; however, not every discussion needs to be graded. “Sometimes you want students to basically talk to each other, and it doesn't necessarily matter if they stay on topic. Early in the semester you need to have some kind of situation where you get them talking, get them to know each other so that later on they can work together on a discussion you can grade,” Ash says.
Depending on the situation, the rubric may be simply—did the student post? For more complex discussion board assignments, the rubric may call for students to use proper grammar and cite sources. “Just like you would in a [face-to-face] classroom, you have to determine what you want your students to get out of [the discussion] and how it plays into the course's learning objectives. That helps you decide whether you're going to grade it or how strongly you're going to grade it,” Ash says.
Ash recommends making rubrics clear for each discussion because while the platform is the same, the expectations may not be the same for all discussions. To alert students to the different expectations, Ash recommends using boldface or another visual indication that the expectations are different from the previous discussion and simply stating things such as, “This isn't the same as the discussion you had last time,” or “Be sure to look at this because I'm going to be looking for different things.”
Early on in a course it helps to provide examples of exemplary and poor posts and explain what distinguishes them. Ash uses a “hands-on” approach at the beginning of a course, modeling good posts, asking questions, and complimenting students on their good posts. “I may have to do a little more work at the beginning of the semester, but typically by the end of the semester they understand it.”