After teaching online for a number of years, I grew weary of the normal “make an initial post, then respond to two others” discussions. Was there another way to engage students? How could I make discussions more meaningful and in-depth? Were there ways to ensure that all students had a voice in a conversation?
Part of my work consists of training K–12 teachers in the use of conversation protocols to look at student work and improve professional practice. These protocols provide a structure by which teachers can look in-depth at student work, dilemmas, and adult work in such a way that feedback can be given in a safe, nonthreatening way and allow an equal voice for all around the table. I have wondered if I could use these same protocols in my online classes to create the same kinds of in-depth conversations among students. After using online protocols for several years, I am convinced that they can provide an alternative to regular discussion assignments that engage students and force them to look at material from a different perspective.
What Are Protocols?
Protocols are structured conversations that come out of K–12 professional learning. They consist of four to seven timed steps that take the group through a conversation. The conversation focuses on the work or text brought to the group, not on the person who brings it. Protocols have a facilitator and ensure equity of voice among the members.
An example protocol is the tuning protocol, which is used to “tune” something to a stated goal (e.g., a book summary to the goal of adequately capturing the author's message, or a grant proposal to a request for proposals).
The tuning protocol consists of the following steps:
- Introduction of the protocol to the group
- Presentation of the work by the person bringing the work
- Warm feedback—in what ways does the work meet the presenter's goals?
- Cool feedback—in what ways does the work not meet the presenter's goals?
- Reaction—the presenter comes back into the conversation and reflects on what he or she heard and how that will affect his or her next steps.
- Debrief of the protocol—How well did the protocol work? What might they do differently the next time? Was this the right protocol to use?
McDonald, Zydney, Dichter, and McDonald (2012) organize protocols by where one is in an online course. They suggest a variety of protocols for starting up a class, delving into a subject matter or piece of work, and finishing up the course or a piece of work. Outlined below are examples of each of these.
An Online Protocol for Starting Up
One protocol for starting up class is titled “Postcards from the Edge” (McDonald et al., 2012).
Introduce students to one another and to the course topic.
An Online Protocol for Delving In
- The Collection—the instructor collects a variety of images and puts them in the discussion prompt.
- Assignment—have students select an image from the collection. Ask a question that connects that image to the topic of the course. Example: How does your image help you think more deeply about _____________?
- Identification—Students explain their image choice.
- Reflection—Students read other posts and add a reflection to their own.
One of my favorite protocols for going deeper into texts is called “The 4As.”
Delve deeply into a text.
- Preparation—the instructor sets up five separate threads, one each for the 4As and one for reflection. Pin these threads so they stay at the top of the discussion board (note: on some LMS systems you will need to enter these threads in reverse order so they show up correctly). Use the following prompts:
- Assumptions—What does the author assume in the text?
- Agree—What do you agree with in the text?
- Argue—What do you argue with in the text?
- Aspire or Act Upon—What in the text would you like to aspire to or act upon?
2. Assignment—Read the text. Respond to each of the 4As threads.
3. Reflection—Read others' texts in each of the threads. Do you notice any commonalities or similarities? What “Ah ha” ideas did you gain from reading others' 4As? What was it like to read a text in this way?
An Online Protocol for Finishing Up
I like to find some way for students to reflect on the entire semester and try to tie it all together. For this, I use the “What? So what? Now what?” protocol.
Provide an opportunity for students to pull together learning from a book, unit, or course and reflect on what they learned and how it affected them.
- Preparation—the instructor sets up three separate threads. Pin these threads so they stay at the top of the discussion board (note: on some LMS systems you will need to enter these threads in reverse order so they show up correctly). Use the following prompts:
- What?—What have I learned from this course? What are the big ideas?
- So What?—Why is the learning important? Why do these ideas matter?
- Debrief—How did this protocol go for us? Was it a good way to reflect on the course as a whole? What might we do differently next time?
- All students initially post in the What? and So What? threads.
- All students post a response to at least two others' initial threads. In this response, make suggestions about next steps—how to make the most of what they say they have learned and how to apply it. Title these responses “Now What?”
- Reaction—Students go back to their original thread, write a reply to the suggestions they've received, and add their own ideas for what to do next.
3. Debrief the activity in the Debrief thread.
Tips for Getting Started
If you are interested in getting started with online protocols, McDonald et al. (2012) suggest the following:
- Start with a simple protocol with few steps.
- Try it out with others before doing it in class, remembering to include a debrief about using the protocol.
- Experiment with a face-to-face small group assignment.
- Observe others facilitating online protocols.
- Look for protocols that serve your purpose.
- Learn more about using protocols in general.
I would add the following tips:
- Start with a text-based protocol—they tend to be less involved and a little easier to facilitate.
- Double-check and triple-check your directions. Make sure they are specific and detailed.
If you'd like to learn more about using online protocols, I suggest the following two resources:
McDonald, J. P., Zydney, J. M., Dichter, A., & McDonald, E. C. 2012. Going online with protocols: New tools for teaching and learning.
New York: Teachers College Press.
The School Reform Initiative—www.schoolreforminitiative.org
—has a list of protocols for use in face-to-face environments, along with information on facilitation strategies.
Julie A. Moore is an associate professor of instructional technology at Kennesaw State University.