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#138: How to Approach Online Discussions from a Macro and Micro View

#138: How to Approach Online Discussions from a Macro and Micro View

This content was first posted on APUEdge.Com. Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenAssociate Dean (interim), School of Arts, Humanities and Education Discussion spaces are one of the most beneficial components in the online classroom. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen highlights some of the primary and secondary benefits of online discussions, including teaching students how to interact by following a netiquette guide as well as teaching skills like conflict resolution in the discussion forums.

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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. This is Bethanie Hansen, and I’m happy to be with you here today talking about discussions in online education. Discussion spaces could be anything. We might have a discussion forum inside the classroom. We might have a discussion wiki. Or, we might have a blog that students are posting. We might even have real time video meetings, where students are typing in the comment section as we go. Whatever your method of hosting a discussion online, some kind of interaction is always needed to help our learners think through the content, try it out and test out their knowledge on each other. They’re going to expand that knowledge as they go, when they’re asking questions, you’re asking questions, and everybody’s checking in with each other. And they’ll come out of this discussion with some additional understanding as a result of all of that talking that has taken place. Today, we’re going to talk about a few tips to help you get the most bang for your buck, as they say, in the discussion, or rather the most benefit from the time you spend there. We’ll also talk about some of the side benefits students are gaining through that discussion, and how we as educators can more intentionally cultivate those benefits.

Discussion Spaces: Understanding the Macro View

The first thing I’d like to touch on is the macro view of your discussion space. When you’re approaching your online class, it can be really helpful to think about what you assume students should know in order to be able to engage in that discussion most effectively.

Develop a Netiquette Guide for Online Discussions

One workshop I engaged in about 10 years ago, it was about managing difficult online students. In this workshop, I learned how to make a netiquette guide. Up until that point, I had never heard of a netiquette guide before; this was something totally new to me. You probably have heard of this, but if you haven’t, a netiquette guide is a little document or a set of rules that you put in either your syllabus, your week one announcement, the week one discussion, or maybe even all of those places. And in this little document or set of rules, you give students guidelines by which you expect them to participate in the discussion. These guidelines could include things like asking them to use one consistent font throughout their posts. Or maybe you want them to use academic language and always support their key points with sources from the classroom, or the textbook, or the internet or whatever you want to choose. Perhaps you want to ask them to avoid profanity or political references, if it’s a class totally unrelated to politics. There are a lot of things you might consider appropriate for your subject matter and for an academic conversation in the first place. Those things can be very professionally said in this netiquette document. And then you can present it to your students before they ever participate, and it will help a lot. That netiquette guide is going to help your students anticipate what kind of work they need to do to participate in the discussion. Then they can better plan how they’re going to read or think about the subject before they start posting there. You will solve a lot of problems up front by giving your students this netiquette guide. I used to spend a lot of time correcting students, teaching them what was appropriate in an academic conversation or grading them where they were missing things and then they would figure it out over a few weeks. But a netiquette guide can help prevent all of those things. Students will know in advance what you’re looking for. And they can do a much better job of giving it to you and to each other, and they will be more satisfied because they know what to expect. So, stating these expectations up front is a little bit like when you hire someone for a job, and you give them clear job expectations then they can perform the work. So, I highly recommend a netiquette guide from this macro view of training people how to participate in the dialogue.

What Are Your Goals for the Discussion Space?

Another macro view tip would be to think about your own goals for that conversational space. Do you really want to engage with students just by posting occasional high fives and saying nice job, good work? Or do you want to ask them questions? Do you want to give them additional examples throughout the week that come from your own life experience or your own professional knowledge? Do you want to engage in all kinds of ways? What kind of goal do you have for your discussion space? As you think about the length of time you’ll be engaging in that discussion, and the goals that you have personally for your students over that time, you can more intentionally plan the discussions that unfold. And you can plan your behavioral goal for how much you’ll post in those discussions and how that will look. Once the semester starts, or once the session starts, you’ll be very busy. And it will be difficult to think on the fly about how to participate in the discussion. Sometimes your life will be so busy that you’ll have to pause, post in your discussion a few times and get back to something else and it will be easier if you have planned ahead what that’s going to look like for you. I highly recommend planning out an approach to how you want to mentor, guide, or coach your students in that discussion, and then put it on your calendar. That way, you have an automated habit. And it’s not a choice you have to face every day. It’ll be a lot easier to fill that promise to yourself and be consistent in the approach you give your students. Students are looking for us to have consistency, by the way. Every time we approach them in a deliberate, consistent way, they gain trust for us. They feel like they get to know us, and they love it. And when they have a concern, they’ll come directly to us so we can resolve the concern with them. If we don’t pave the way through those consistent, deliberate behaviors, then when our students have a concern, they’re going to go to someone else. Maybe it’s the principal, the dean, the president of the university. It could be anyone, but it won’t be us and we won’t be as effective in resolving it if they feel like they can’t trust us enough to talk to us. So, thinking about your discussion space from this macro view of setting up a netiquette guide, and planning ahead for your own engagement and your approach to that engagement can go a long way to help you set up a very professional and academic space that is rewarding for everybody. There are some things that come along with discussions that are not really overt, obvious benefits. But some of those things are that students can learn conflict-resolution strategies in those conversations. There are also a lot of excellent life skills most people would expect from a college graduate, or a high school graduate, whatever space you’re in, where you’re teaching. Decision making is another one of those beautiful outcomes that comes from the discussion space, and prioritizing. And judgment, learning how to state your opinion and support it with facts and evidence and create a constructive argument. All of these things can be beautiful goals for the discussion space no matter what subject matter you’re teaching. Many of you know I teach music appreciation online. I talk about that a lot in this podcast. And even when we’re talking about music, I expect my students to come with sources, evidence and facts to back up their claim. They might have an opinion about a song or a composer, and they need to listen to that music and come back into the space and talk about it and explain: Why do they think this composer was the best one in that period of time? Why do they think a certain song is not enjoyable to listen to? Any kind of supporting through facts, evidence and details gives them the life skills to support their claim in other areas of their lives, and in their professional pursuits as well. This is a win for everybody. These kinds of goals might be called institutional-learning outcomes, if you’re in a university setting. They might be called core-life skills, if you’re teaching in a public-school setting. Wherever you are, thinking about the big picture goals of what that education is all about will really help you draw those things out and intentionally promote them in the discussion.

Practicing Conflict Resolution

Conflict resolution is one of my favorite things to talk about in a discussion. And I think a lot about how students and faculty all have differing opinions. The facts may be the same, but the approach to interpreting them and the way we choose to argue that point might be vastly different from one person to the next. In life, many of us may be totally comfortable with conflict, and many of us may be very averse to conflict. In fact, I know a lot of adults who are super agreeable and would rather say “yes,” go along with it or say nothing at all, than engage in a conflict. A discussion space is a perfect opportunity to practice conflict resolution. If you’re really comfortable with this already, you can set that up in the very beginning in your netiquette guide and actually introduce the concept of conflict, conflicting opinions, how to voice a dissenting opinion in a professional and academic way that is supported by argument, ideas and facts, and you can guide people through the process of disagreeing throughout the course. Perhaps you even have a debate that you’re going to include in your online teaching space. Conflict resolution is particularly useful whenever we’re working on things that do have obvious sides to choose, or opinions that can come out. It’s helpful as an educator, ahead of time before that discussion takes place, it’s helpful to be thinking about where students might have differing opinions. Perhaps, in the prompt to that discussion, or in our initial posts as the educator, we can even draw out the conflicts that we anticipate seeing. And we can guide students in their approach to those discussions so the conflict and the resolution of these things in students’ posts is clear. And they can gain some comfort recognizing that conflicting opinions does not mean we cannot work together, we can totally get along. In fact, we can win when we bring together a lot of diversity and opposite thinking, to shed light on our own thoughts, and help us find blind spots in our thinking, and fully develop our thought, cognition, argument and all of those other things that we might have going on in our in our direction. So, conflict resolution skills are a great goal in discussion spaces. And as you develop all of these things with your students and think ahead about what they’re going to bring to that discussion, what perspectives they might have that could differ, and where they could develop more decision-making skills, more conflict-resolution skills, and overall life skills, the more you can plan for that, and then bring in examples and guide them even further.

Teaching Students How to Think and Formulate Opinions in Online Discussions

One of the best goals of education is to teach people how to think and support what they think, not necessarily what to think. We’re all going to have our own viewpoints. But discussion spaces are a great spot to work through those viewpoints and learn how to get along with all kinds of different people that think all kinds of different things. Closing out this episode today, I want to encourage you to think about the macro view of why you use discussions in your online class, what you’d like to tell students up front, and how you’d like to plan your own involvement, as well as the micro view where you’re thinking about specific topics, skills and approaches students will bring and might need to bring. And how you’d like to moderate that and include a lot of diversity of opinion to really develop a robust discussion and help students develop their life skills along the way as well. Thank you for being here with me in this discussion about discussions, and I wish you all the best this coming week in your online teaching. This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit BethanieHansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.