Online faculty often default to an essay assignment mindset when establishing the parameters for an online discussion. They require posts to be up to 500 words and to include several citations and other academic writing components, such as introductions, conclusions, and references.
But online discussion is not an essay exchange or a place to practice academic writing. It is a “discussion”: a forum for students to practice effective communication with peers and build on each other’s ideas and for teachers to foster student engagement in the online classroom. An academic writing format does not facilitate this type of exchange.
Just looking at an essay-length post on a discussion board is intimating. Large chunks of text are difficult to engage with, resulting in cognitive overload for students. And essays contain too many different ideas for students to respond to effectively. This can result in a glut of fragmented and superficial responses on a discussion board.
In the working world, we discuss issues online in emails, and email has its own format. Students learn the academic article format in higher education and texting format outside of class, but rarely are they taught the email format that will serve as the basis for their online discussions in the future. We serve our students better by leaving the academic format to essay assignments and instead teaching them to communicate using the email format in online discussion.
Effective emails focus on one topic, open with the main idea, and are designed to be read and responded to efficiently while also building rapport with their audience—all elements that can facilitate a more engaging and accessible online student discussion.
Thus, I decided to experiment with having students write in an email format for their online discussions. Adapted from Guffey et al.’s Essentials of Business Communication (2016), I now use the following email framework to guide students’ discussion posts in the online classroom:
Although further research needs be undertaken to support the efficacy of this framework, the result in my classroom been accessible discussions, high student engagement, and an opportunity to practice professional writing in a low-stakes environment.
Clear, concise, and respectful communication will always be a transferable skill for students, and what is most important is articulating those expectations to your class. Modeling and normalizing email-style exchanges on a discussion board can help create a more accessible forum for your online classroom while facilitating literacy practices that will not only follow students through their academic journey but also support them throughout their professional lives.
Guffey, M. E., Loewy, D., & Almonte, R. (2016). Essentials of business communication (9th Canadian ed.). Nelson Education.
Casey Gurfinkel is a communications professor in the Department of English and Communication at George Brown College in Toronto.