Friday, April 17, 2009

Three-pronged approach to online discussions for learning

Although I have of late neglected this blog while writing for other venues, I am stimulated to regroup after attending a few sessions about online teaching and learning at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual conference. I have no beef with the research methods described by presenters. Instead, I find it disconcerting when researchers fail to attend to basic, foundational needs when designing the online discussions they research. In my mind, designing and facilitating online discussions for learning requires a three-pronged approach. The three prongs are: relevance, expectations, and preparation. And, if you haven't adequately addressed these three prongs, then the research results will likely be shallow and lack meaning.

This seems obvious, but for some reason it is often missed. Students are busy folks...they don't have time for busywork and resent activities that feel like phluff. An online discussion for learning needs to be relevant – have a clear purpose – for students to attend to it in personally, professionally, and/or academically meaningful ways. If the online discussion they are being asked to participate in is seen as irrelevant – from their perspective...which is what counts when considering student engagement – then they will fail to contribute to the discussion as you had hoped, and will fail to take anything of value away from the discussion. Even when you have set up a relevant online discussion, you still may not attract the student participation you are looking and hoping for. Hence the next two prongs...

“I asked them to post twice, and [with a disheartened tone] they only posted twice...” I'm not quite sure why we expect students to do more than we ask them to do. Let's face it, we get what we ask for; if we ask for two posts, that's what we will get from busy people (especially if the online discussion is seen as irrelevant). The “post x number of times” strategy for encouraging participation is a downright horrible way to go about this. In an on-campus course, when was the last time you said, “Class? During today's discussion of the readings, everyone must contribute one original statement, and comment on one peer's statement”? Never, because if we did that it would lead to a very strange, unnatural that didn't even resemble the fruitful, organic discussions we want to facilitate.

But, if we don't specify how many posts we want students to contribute, how we will ensure that discussion happens? If you want a deep discussion, you have to set up the discussion to encourage depth; I've shared a number of strategies in this blog, such as discussion protocols, inspiration points, and one-minute papers. For example, if at the end of a week-long online discussion I ask students to submit a one-minute paper (note, not really a one-minute paper, but inspired by the concept) that addresses the following --
  • Summarize the discussion in 150-250 words
  • Share your most important contribution, and describe in 150-250 words why it was important to the discussion (include how others reacted to your contribution)
  • Share a contribution that someone else made that was of particular value to you. In 150-250 words, describe why it was of value, and how you and others responded to that contribution during the discussion
-- then students will not necessarily just post twice. Instead, they will post to contribute something of value to the discussion. That may take only one post (although unlikely) or 15 posts. But, since they have to ultimately summarize, share, and describe the discussion, they will more than likely fully attend to the discussion...especially if it is relevant and tied to assessment.

Assessment is an important part of expectations. If we expect students to put time and energy into an online discussion, then we not only need to tell students what we want from them in an online discussion we need to make their discussion participation worth points towards final grade. Again, using the one-minute paper example, if you tell students up-front that you require a one-minute paper submitted at the end of each discussion, what the paper must include, and how you will assess it and award points, students are more likely to produce what you am looking for. And, the online discussion activity will more likely lead to something students see as valuable as opposed to busywork.

What I’ve shared above is all well and good if students know how to participate in an online discussion. Too often we assume they know what to do, when they don't. Online discussions are nothing like face-to-face discussions, so students need assistance preparing for and participating in online discussions. Setting expectations, as described above, can certainly help. But, providing students with guidelines for posting comments (e.g., post early in the discussion to ensure your peers will see your comment, be sure to read everyone else's post in the thread before responding), examples of fruitful and not-so-fruitful online discussions (with you pointing out what makes them fruitful or not), and models of appropriate online discussion posts (which you can do by being active in the online discussions yourself) can help students develop the skills of online discussion.

Final thoughts...researchers, if you attend to these three foundational needs and then run your study, the results will more likely lead to important contributions...and I will happily be in the front row at your conference presentation.


R.K. Hageman at CCD said...

Hello! I met you and attended your presentation for CCD in May, at the "Future of Teaching and Learning" conference, and I'm about to take the leap into creating class blogs myself.

I've been thinking about how to encourage/require participation, so I was thinking about your "Expectations" paragraph. What I'm thinking of doing is making it a HW assignment to reply/post 5 times over the semester, and offer extra credit points for any posts over and above that.


Joni Dunlap said...

That was a fun conference! Glad to read you are exploring blogs. Please keep me posted.

Since this note is attached to a post on online discussions instead of blogging, I will focus on best practice for online discussion. I don't recommend the counting approach (e.g., reply/post 5 times). You will get 5 posts from each student, but that doesn't really mean you will get meaningful discussion. Since I don't know the context of your course, I can't be specific with suggestions. However, I have several posts in this blog about making online discussions work...or, if you email me directly (, I can send you a document with discussion guidelines that you may find helpful in making online discussions work in your course.