Monday, November 24, 2008

A few strategies for setting the right tone for online discussions

As a staple of online instructional interaction, online discussions are a big part of what takes place in the learning community – it is through these discussions, often, that much of the learning occurs. Therefore, learners’ comfort with participating in online discussions can have a big influence on what they achieve in the course. Comfort can be achieved through establishing trust with the instructor and with course colleagues, and through practice via non-threatening discussion experiences. To establish trust, consider the following strategies:
  • Share a story, related to the content of the course if possible, that gives learners insight into your values, passions, interests, etc. Consider using a tool such as PowerPoint to enhance your story with photos, images, and audio clips (including your voice) – making it a digital story, in other words. See for an example of a digital story that helps my students feel more connected to me (and, therefore, more willing to share and participate in course activities, specifically discussion) while introducing an important topic my courses – values for teaching and learning. Notice that students never see the me, but hear my voice, see photos of my family, and listen to me describe a life-altering event that reflects my own values around teaching and learning. Now that I have shared, the students are more open to sharing.

  • Ask students to post bios/introductions, but to encourage discourse around the shared information ask them to share of list of “facts” about themselves – some true and some not true. Have students engage in a “20 Questions” like discussion so they can determine which facts are in fact false. Besides the practice with using the discussion forum tool and responding appropriately to others’ messages, students start making connections that help them feel more comfortable. “We graduated from the same high school!” “You like to quilt too. What was your last project?” “I’ve been to Australia too. You have to go to Perth…” “What do you mean, ‘Don’t get off the boat in Ensenada’? There’s a story there.”

  • For purposes of practicing online discussion (using the tools, protocols, etiquette, etc.), give learners opportunities to discuss non-threatening, low-judgmental topics. Consider the following activities:
    • Send students to a website that requires they do something and then ask them to share their experience with the group. For example,
      • Have students visit and respond to the following questions in a discussion forum:
        - What happens to you while you are there?
        - What is your favorite part of the experience?
        - Why do you think I am asking you to do these sorts of activities?
      • Have them visit the Mr. Picassohead website -- -- and create an artwork, then submit a link to the discussion forum. Once posted, encourage students to comment on each other’s artwork.

    • Post entertaining photos (not related to the course content) and ask students to share their captions. See below for an example of one of my favorite photos with some student captions.

      A few student captions:
      • Wait please! I do have good news...I just saved tons of money on my car insurance by switching to Geico.
      • Tim Burton "re-imagines" When Harry Met Sally.
      • I can take the giant brain, I can take the claws for hands, but why must you insist on wearing blue leather pants every time we go out?
      • MIT student enrolls at UCD. Instructors panic!
      • Listen, you're a nice guy and have a great personality, but my mother simply won't accept a son-in-law whose brain is on the outside.
      • During a break on the set, Ted belts out a rendition of "If I only had brain" on his air guitar. Meanwhile, Mary makes a run for it, hoping her career as an actress is still intact.

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