Despite a faculty member's best efforts, online discussions often degenerate into students simply taking turns answering the original question rather than genuinely speaking to one another. One problem is that many students feel that it is not their place to criticize peers. This might be the result of the emphasis on inclusion in k-12 education, which is admirable, but could also be making students hesitant to challenge each other's ideas.
Yu-Hui Ching and Yu-Chang Hsu of Boise State University addressed this problem by crafting online discussion as a role-playing activity, with students commenting within an assigned role. They found that this twist significantly improved the level of students' engagement with peers (2016). They required students in an instructional design course to tackle a problem by analyzing the situation and posting a solution as an audio or video VoiceThread. Their peers then commented on the presentations using the VoiceThread commenting feature within an assigned “stakeholder” role in the instructional design process. Unfortunately, the authors never defined these roles, but one could surmise that they would include the course developer creating class material, the teacher planning to teach the course, or a student taking the course.
Researchers found that students providing commentary within a role were more likely to critique a peer's work by identifying problems, asking questions, suggesting solutions, or showing support. Students were engaging with other students in ways not seen when they were not in specific roles.
When surveyed, students provided a number of reasons why they were more likely to engage with their peers. One was that they were more confident in their commentary when they delivered it within roles. This is interesting because comments expressed students' own ideas whether they were playing roles or speaking for themselves, but by adopting roles, students became more comfortable voicing their thoughts.
Additionally, both the sender and receiver felt more psychological safety discussing issues within roles. It is curious that even the receiver felt more psychological safety, since the person posting the activity was not acting in a role. Apparently, the fact that the criticism the student received came from a role made it more palatable to the receiver.
Role-playing can be an effective learning device in any online course. Students in a business class can discuss a business proposal within assigned roles such as marketing director, CFO, HR director, and so forth. Students in a civil engineering course can be put into roles within an imaginary engineering firm given a project from a hypothetical client and asked to develop a plan, while the other students critique that plan from the standpoints of the client and other stakeholders such as members of the community, users, and the like. I sometimes give cases to students in my medical ethics course and assign them roles to discuss those cases, such as a patient with a terminal illness, family members, social workers, and members of a care team.
Faculty can add a second layer of discussion by asking students to critique each other's performances in their roles at the end of the activity. Perhaps a student playing the part of a care team member in a medical ethics discussion might suggest that the family members would have brought up a variety of objections to the care team's recommendations. Perhaps a student in the civil engineering activity might suggest that the client would have questioned the cost of the plan more than was actually done.
Faculty who are finding their online discussions lacking should try reformulating their discussions as role-playing activities to provide the psychological safety needed to get students to genuinely engage one another on the issues.
Ching, Y., and Y. Hsu. “Learners' Interpersonal Beliefs and Generated Feedback in an Online Role-Playing Peer-Feedback Activity: An Exploratory Study.” International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 17, no. 2 (2016): 105–122.