When you picture an online discussion, your mind most likely envisions a text-heavy, threaded exchange of ideas among students who are primarily responding to an instructor's prompt and then persuaded by the promise of points to respond to each other. Depending on a number of factors, the discussion can be dynamic, or it can fall flat. Because discussion forums are one of the most popular and frequently used technological tools in online and blended courses, instructors must take the time to ensure these discussions are effective.
Our simple model proposes a structure to help rejuvenate online discussions in three steps: prepping, discussing, and assessing. Prepping is an important and sometimes overlooked step, as we are all rushed for time when we begin our online or blended courses, but we argue that preparation is essential to reach your intended outcomes for your course. Some of the key aspects of prepping include creating clear criteria for your students, communicating expectations, establishing ground rules, carefully considering question types, and having clear goals or links to learning outcomes.
If it's important that your students write over 300 words in a post, make that explicit. If you expect your students to respond within a week to two other students' posts, write it clearly in your instructions. Better yet, make a video for your students describing your expectations. You might even consider having the students come up with the ground rules or netiquette for discussions. Making conscious decisions about the type of question(s) you are going to ask in a discussion forum is key. Try a case study or scenario and ask students to solve or respond to it. Ask students to role play as a particular character or historical figure as they respond to your prompt.
Carefully consider how each discussion forum is helping students reach your intended learning outcomes, and then plan accordingly. Are you using discussion forums to make students think critically? Then ask a higher-order question. Are you hoping this discussion forum will let you know they read the chapter? Then ask for a summary and/or consider other assessment alternatives instead of a discussion forum. Keep your learning goals in mind as you are prepping.
The second step is discussing. This is where the magic actually happens. Once you have effectively prepped, it is now time to administer the discussion to and with your students. Encourage critical thinking throughout the discussion by actively participating and expanding the discussion in new and exciting directions using open-ended, higher-order questions. Also consider varying who leads the discussion. It doesn't always have to be you. You can have one student or a group of students come up with the question(s) and then lead the discussion. Or consider inviting an expert on the content to your class as the discussion leader for the week.
You might ask students to play various roles in the discussion: peacekeeper, devil's advocate, reflector, or summarizer, for example. If you determine that you don't want to impose your thoughts in a discussion forum but let the students lead, find another way to be present. You might consider just wrapping up with a summary or reflection so that students know that discussions are important to you and to the course content. Provide feedback to students privately on their level of participation in the forum, and use this feature more frequently if you see flaming. Stop bad behavior before it becomes a larger issue among your students.
As you are prepping and discussing, try out new technologies that can enhance and add variety to your blended and online classes. Many of these educational technologies are free for the basic package but offer reasonable yearly contracts for premium versions. Some tools among many that we've been using lately in our blended and online classes include Flipgrid, Padlet, and Buncee. Flipgrid (https://info.flipgrid.com) is a video tool that supports giving all students a voice. Instructors can post a discussion question in a video format and students respond back through videos they can create on their computers, phones, or tablets. With the premium account, students can respond to each other's videos. This tool provides many fun additions such as stickers, emojis, private feedback, grading, and video sharing.
Padlet (https://padlet.com) is an electronic whiteboard that allows students to post videos, audio, documents, pictures, and text. Other students can add their own comments to posts. Just recently, Padlet added liking, voting, starring, and grading features. Instead of all-text discussions, Padlet could be a way to allow your students to express their perspective in visuals, video, or other formats. The bulletin board style of Padlet may add variety to what might be considered stagnant text-based discussions.
Buncee (https://www.edu.buncee.com) is an easy-to-use web tool for creating and sharing multimedia presentations, lessons, and digital stories. Instead of using a traditional discussion forum, you might ask your students to use the stickers, animations, and backgrounds available in Buncee to create a slide that represents their thinking on a particular topic in your class. Then students can post their slides to a Buncee board, a shared space that allows users to view and comment on each other's Buncee creations.
Flipgrid, Padlet, and Buncee are just a few of the many educational technologies that can be used to meet the same learning objectives as your traditional discussion forum.
The final step is assessing. Every discussion forum, every semester, should be evaluated to make sure the discussion has led to the intended learning outcomes. If role playing seemed like a good idea at the time but fell flat during the execution, perhaps it is because students didn't have time to learn about their particular role before participating in the discussion. Acknowledge your mistakes and failures, and determine revisions needed for the next time you teach the course. Ask for anonymous student feedback using a simple tool such as Google Forms so you can learn from your students and improve for the future.
Consider using rubrics in two different ways. First, use a rubric to provide grades for discussions on a variety of key elements that you determined during your prepping step. Second, use a rubric to assess the overall forum itself and the extent to which it met your intended learning outcomes. One would be student centered and the other would be instructor centered, with both types of rubrics helping you assess and then make decisions for the future.
Lastly, recognize during the assessing step that discussion forums aren't always the answer. Other assessments might help you reach your intended goals, such blogs or collaborative activities. You might choose to have students write blogs regularly and comment on each other's blogs, or collaborate on a wiki page, or use Google Docs or Slides or the comparable Office 365 tools as they work together to accomplish a learning outcome.
You will also find that the asynchronous nature of most discussion forums does not replicate the types of discussions you've had in your face-to-face classes. You might want to hold synchronous discussions instead using GoToMeeting, BigBlueButton Conferences, Adobe Connect, Zoom, Google Hangouts, or Skype. These synchronous discussions can be just audio, or audio and video, or just chat based.
Madeline Craig is an assistant professor of education at Molloy College. Linda Kraemer is a professor of education at Molloy College.