Energizing Online Discussions

Face to face discussion gives students opportunities to engage with course content and each other in deep and meaningful ways. Sometimes, though, it is a challenge to create energetic discussions in an asynchronous, online format. Here are some ideas for taking class discussion online and keeping students engaged.

Building Community

Online discussion boards allow you to build a stronger classroom community.  One way to foster this is to provide an open space for students to discuss topics that are tangentially related to the course. For example, you can include Q&A forums for students to post their course or subject matter questions. To encourage participation, other students can be awarded extra credit for responding to their peers.

Another idea for building community is to provide a space for students to share any kind of information they find useful. Shelley Goldner provides this kind of forum, called “Tip Jar,” in her Legal Environment of Human Capital Development course. Students are encouraged to share anything they find useful: websites, articles, events, webinars, or even solutions to issues they find in their work lives.

Making Connections

As you read student responses, you may find that they simply post their own thoughts, without connecting how their ideas are related to, or divergent from, their fellow classmates’. One strategy to facilitate connections among ideas is to break students into small groups of 3 or 4. One student could serve as the leader for that forum, or thread, and post an original thought related to the topic at hand. Group members could then respond to the leader’s post and explain why they agree (or disagree) with the leader and other group member posts. Group members could then take turns leading the discussion.

A similar strategy may be to allow a “lead” student to post evidence supporting her/his stance on a topic. Fellow group members could then post evidence that either supports or refutes the claims of the lead student.

Alternatively, a student could be assigned as the “facilitator” of the discussion each week (this is probably more manageable in group-based discussions). As the facilitator, the student would be tasked with furthering the discussion, either by asking follow-up questions, requesting evidence or explanation for other students’ stances, or providing counterpoints.

Encouraging Unique and Varied Posts

Students may find it difficult to come up with a fresh take on a topic and feel as though they have nothing new to contribute (especially if early posters hit all the salient points). One way to help students respond to the same topic in unique ways is to ask them to include something of themselves in the response. For example, if students were discussing the homeless, they could engage in a little role playing and discuss how they would respond to being homeless.

Pat Bicknell, from the School of Nursing and Health Sciences, uses the wiki tool to give her students a space to discuss concepts and provide varied posts. Her technique is to group students into triads. Students then follow a debate model with one student as the lead, another student providing counterpoint, and one student acting as the moderator.

Discussion responses could also focus on solving a particular problem, providing a simulation where students could come up with real-world solutions and compare their own ideas with other members of the group. The instructor can also assign sub-topics to individual or groups of students so that each has to respond from a different perspective. Elizabeth Langemak does this effectively in her Introduction to Literature course by asking students to each respond to different passages in a novel.

Another way to encourage unique posts from each student is to ask them to find their own resources (websites, tools, articles, or blogs) related to a course topic or problem. Students can explain how this resource adds value to the larger topic or theme. A variation of this is to incorporate current events and ask students to seek out and share the local implications of a particular event. If students are geographically diverse, it may be interesting to ask them to compare and contrast the effects across different areas.

Not sure how to set up a discussion forum in Blackboard? Check out this post for step by step instructions.

What strategies or tools are you using to encourage more discussion in your course? Please share in the comments!

2 replies on “Energizing Online Discussions”

  1. I like to use blogs along with discussion boards in my BB supported courses. Specifically, I use blogs to have students present and discuss current issues related to the course. Each week two students are responsible for posting a recent article that has explicipt connections to the topic of the week. In turn, their peers are responsible for responding to the article, making explicit connections to the topic of the week. Both the posts and the responses are shaped by a checklist that I provide. It specifies such things as length of the post, approrprate use of language, etc. Finally, both the posts and the responses are graded using the checklists provided.

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