This content was first posted on APUEdge.Com. Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. Hansen, Associate 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.
Enhancing Online Discussion Forums to Improve Student Learning
This content first appeared at APUEdge.Com.
Discussion forums are where most interactions happen in the online classroom, so it’s critical that educators use this area strategically. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen provides insight into enhancing discussion forums to encourage student engagement, foster connections, exercise critical thinking skills, and offer further learning into the topic at hand. Learn how to improve discussion forums by writing open-ended questions, clearly setting expectations with students about when and how often they should participate, and more.
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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 today’s podcast. We’re going to talk about forum discussions. Discussions, discussion forums, they’re called a lot of things, but these are the places in the online classroom where students and faculty, peer-to-peer, peer-to-self, peer-to-content, peer-to-faculty, this is where everyone is going to speak about the content and interact. This is the main conversation space.
Forum discussions can be used as a place for pure discussion, basically it’s about the academic content. It could be a place where you have students place their graded work or they’re going to put it there and have something like a peer review. Or they’re going to post a blog and it’s got to be graded. They could be assignments posted to share and discuss before their due date, to be a draft for peer review.
They could be assignments shared after the fact just to share, say, it’s a PowerPoint presentation. And talk about concepts together. It could be a space where students teach each other. Whatever it is, forum discussions in my opinion are an optimal thing to really engage formative assessment strategies. Help students through learning and get them really engaged in the class.
Franklin D. Roosevelt said that “If a civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships.” This is a great place to do it. There are different places in the typical online classroom for these other elements. There’s usually, in a learning management system, there is an assignment space to submit essays and blogs and things like that.
There are also other tools in certain learning management systems where you can have students write a journal and submit it privately. For that reason, today I’m going to discuss only conversational elements of discussion forums. I’m going to give you a few strategies, some tips you can use, some best practices, some based on research, some based on experience and observation.
Why Should You Care About the Discussion Area?
First, every learning management system comes with a space for conversations. Many of them, and some of the older models especially, called them a forum. And a forum is a space where conversations can occur. If you change that name to discussions, it makes it even more specific to what you’re hoping to achieve in that space. A discussion is back and forth, it isn’t one person setting everyone else straight, and it is an opportunity for varying levels of engagement and participation in that discussion.
This is a great space where students can have some formative practice with learning the material that you’re teaching. It is also a place where they can have guided practice, which anyone new to the subject area is going to need, to develop their thinking, to develop their descriptive abilities for terms that are going to be used, to develop their analytical abilities, and so forth. They’re the best locations where students can try on new ideas. Try on new terms and concepts and write about them to further develop and adjust their thinking.
You should care about discussion forums not only because there’s a space to do them in an online class, but more because when you have students learning from you and from the content, you want to see the results of the learning. One of the best things we can do as educators is see the result and determine if our strategies are working. The discussion is a space where we can help nudge people in the right direction, help them explore those ideas more fully and learn from each other and us as the teacher so that we can get them to a place where they’re ready to do more.
The discussion could be excellent preparation for an assignment. For example, if you had an essay you wanted a student to do, to write about their understanding on a particular subject, that discussion the previous week could’ve been focused on the topic to explore ideas. Test them out. Apply them in a soft way. Then, in the following week, if the student writes the essay, they can be prepared because they had a chance to talk through their ideas.
General purposes of a discussion space are to foster this connection between people and give people a space to check in, converse. Most online classes are asynchronous in many universities, which means that a student goes in, participates, does their work, and leaves, and then you as the faculty member might be in that classroom at a different time.
If your courses are synchronous–meaning that they’re taking place in real time–then maybe a discussion is just a space where you might have a little follow-up conversation to whatever happens in that live space. And in that kind of situation, it makes sense that maybe the faculty member is checking on the discussion and facilitating it, but less active.
When there’s an asynchronous situation where students are to guide themselves through the learning material, through the lesson content, a more active role for the faculty member or teacher is super helpful to help the students stay on track.
In an online class, forum discussions can serve as the space where students have a voice for initial comments. Every single student has a voice. Now, if you think about your typical university lecture class, you might have one faculty member at the front of the room, lots and lots of students especially if it’s a general education class, you might have 300 students in there. Unless you give the students time to talk to each other during part of that class to discuss the ideas, many times students really don’t have a voice at all during the class. There’s this learning cycle where we take in information, we think about it, we talk about it, we write about it, and eventually we’ve formed our understanding of the content. Simply hearing it doesn’t really help us to change our ideas, be transformed by them or deeply learn things.
In the forum discussion unlike the live lecture class, you’ve got this opportunity for students to really have their own voice, have a choice about what they contribute to the dialogue. It’s a super huge benefit of online education and something that makes online learning unique and very special when you compare it to the live class with very little participation.
Now, if you’re a more active instructor and in your live classes you tend to engage people a lot, that’s normal and usual for you. I tend to do that as a strategy because of my background, but not everyone sees teaching that way, so this is the opportunity for a totally different experience that student’s going to have.
On the flip side, there are students who don’t want to participate in the discussion. They want to show up, they want to get the very minimum of what they need to do in that online class or that live class–whatever kind it is–they want to get a grade and move on. For these students that class is not a subject they particularly like, they don’t really want to learn it, they’re busy working and this is a part-time thing going to school, for whatever reason there are many students who just want to move as quickly through as possible.
But I want everyone out there to know there are also people who deeply want to learn the content. Many, in fact. It might surprise you how many students really do care and want to really understand what you’re teaching. So, this is the chance that they can contribute their ideas and they can engage with other people and they can get new insights and have a lot of different experiences. Caring about this matters because whatever attitude or perception or belief that you bring to the experience as the faculty member or the teacher, that predisposed disposition–that’s a little redundant–by your disposition about forum discussions, this is going to greatly influence the students’ experience.
It doesn’t really matter how the discussion is set up, what it’s prepared to do; if you are against doing discussions online, it’s going to be very difficult to utilize these to their full potential. Now if you really like to engage with students, love to hear what they have to say, love to challenge them and prompt them to think more deeply and share your insights, experience, and questions with them, then a forum discussion might come more naturally.
One of the ways to be most successful setting these up in your own attitude and thinking is to consider what you view the value of education, the core philosophy of what you’re doing. What you hope to accomplish by being a teacher. The big picture. Do you hope to change people’s assumptions? Do you hope to open doors for them so they can move in new directions? Do you hope to help them transform themselves as individuals? Are you trying to promote social change?
There are a lot of different roles that education can serve. Whatever your belief is about it, chances are, you’re going to find something you can really bring into that discussion in a way that’s going to be uniquely you and make a difference and really have somewhere to go with it.
The problem of online education is the lack of face-to-face, especially in asynchronous classes that don’t meet all at one time. In a synchronous class you’re still held back by this digital interface, but even then, you’re seeing people and you’re hearing them in real time. So, the problem of teaching online is partially overcome through that discussion, where we start to get to know each other, we start to dive into ideas.
Now why does that matter? If you have a disengaged student or have a lack of connection, it’s very difficult to feel like moving forward with the content. Many times, people need that connection to feel like they’re part of a school, part of a class, engaged in learning, moving forward on something. It’s going to matter to you long-term to learn how to develop discussions because these can serve you incredibly well and very soon in the online teaching side of things your interest in online teaching will increase if you will engage more fully in those discussions.
You can derive your own purpose and meaning of education and why you are a teacher from the way you participate and the way you approach your students’ participation. It can matter to your students deeply in the future because they need to connect to the concept to learn it and to move through whatever the purpose of your class is.
I have had a variety of discussions. Some of them are teacher-led forum discussions. Some of them are student-led. There have been some I’ve engaged in with courses I’ve taught online that have been group discussions, where maybe there were five or six people in the group and they were discussing or planning a project or something like that. There are a lot of different ways to set this up. I don’t propose that there is only one “right” way, but there are some guidelines that will help you be successful establishing solid discussion forums in your online teaching.
Considerations for Setting up an Online Discussion Forum
First, determine how many discussions you want to have and what is going to overload the student. There is no real perfect answer to how many discussions are optimal during an online class. If you consider how long the class is, for example, if it is a 14-, 15- or 16-week class, it would make sense to have one discussion per week. That keeps it manageable and helps students to stay focused on the topic during the week it’s happening.
If you have a shorter class, maybe you have a four-, five-, or eight-week class, this could be a little bit more difficult. It might cause you to think that you must cover a lot of topics in those discussions, and it might lead you to have many discussions going on at one time. You can either have two separate conversation spaces, two entirely different forum discussions, if you need more than one. Or you can have one discussion with the option to choose from many topics that you offer.
Again, if you approach forum discussions as a space to practice the ideas and to really manipulate them to understand them, then it does not require every student to discuss every topic, every week. Options on those topics can be very helpful.
Also, you’re going to need participation requirements. So, telling your students how often or how many times they should engage at a minimum for whatever you’re going to expect and, again, think about the topic. Will it require them to come back many times? Will it require them to give each other feedback? Will they need to come back a different day to do the feedback?
Whatever your desire is, be specific about how many times, how often during the week. And, should they have a day when their initial post is due and a different day when their peer replies are due? There’s often this idea that students are going to put an initial post in there of their ideas, and they are going to go back and respond to the ideas of their classmates.
During this whole process, of course, you can also put some initial posts to guide them. You can reply to the students just as the peers would reply, and converse just like you might in a live discussion. There are some other ideas like threaded forums, where you post that initial prompt and everyone responds along one single thread. They can be difficult to manage, they can also be interesting to see how the class unfolds along the idea. There are a lot of benefits to using what we call a threaded discussion.
There are also a lot of benefits to posting these separate discussions as individual posts students have. Whatever kind you want it to be, you want to tell students how it will unfold, how they should engage, how often.
As you design the form prompt that you put there telling students what they should write about or talk about, you want some different statements that will guide the content about what students are going to discuss. What qualities should the initial post include? How long should it be? How timely should it be? What are the directions you are going to include for sharing content and source materials? Will students need to refer to a source that they may have used in the form discussion? If so, can they give you a link? Can they simply mention it? Do they need to give you an actual formatted citation in MLA (Modern Languages Association), Chicago or Turabian or APA style?
Whatever those different details are, be specific with each forum that you post. And yes, I do advocate being repetitive on that part, including every week what the posting guidelines are. Keeping them fairly consistent can help students to engage better.
If you want your students to post in the normal font that appears, just remind them of that. You can also suggest that they use the spell check or grammar check. If you do use word counts for your forums, and if your learning management system does not give you a way to naturally do that, you can also suggest they type their forum in Microsoft Word, copy and paste it into the forum afterwards.
As you’re developing the prompt for the discussion, think about the qualities that students need to provide, whether they’re going to specifically give their take-away, their reflection, what they need to include in terms of the dialogue they’re sharing, and if they should ask each other questions. This can be a helpful way to get the discussion going. I have a little checklist that I’m going to share with you now that has six different elements and it comes from a book I wrote called “Teaching Music Appreciation Online,” (page 119), if you have a copy of that.
And this form prompt quality checklist is just to determine: Does the form prompt have the elements needed to help students know what to do and have the best chance of engaging well?
- The first question is, “does your forum prompt include a specific active verb indicating the action students will take developing their initial post in the discussion?” And some active verbs might be: define, describe, identify, compare, contrast, explain, summarize, apply, predict, classify, analyze, evaluate, critique, create, and design.
- Second question, “if guiding questions are included, are they written as open-ended questions that allow students to exercise critical thinking to create, to explore and otherwise apply their learning?” For example, does the question you have given students use the words “how” or “why,” and avoid closed ended yes/no questions, like did, do, where, or who? Closed ended questions make it very difficult to have a discussion, and most students will copy each other. There are only a few responses possible, so open-ended questions are much more useful, like “what,” “how,” and “why.”
- “Does the forum prompt specifically guide students to the content, concepts, topic and other elements to be included in their initial post?”
- “Does the form prompt state how many details or sources or what link is to be included in the student’s initial post?”
- “Does the forum prompt appear appropriate for the level of the course that you’re teaching?” For example, if you’re teaching a college level course at a 100 level, does the prompt address general elements and then draw students into deeper thinking. And at the 400 college-level does it identify complex ideas and analyses and different types of application you would want at that level?
- And lastly, “are clear posting instructions included, such as the due date for the initial post, the number of replies and the due date for those replies, and any other pertinent requirements?”
Think about these as you write forum prompts and examine the forum prompts that exist. If you’re teaching a standardized course. And as you’re looking at the forum prompt, if you’re teaching a course someone else has designed, it’s very easy to change the wording slightly to make it even more effective. And if you’re at a university where there’s some collaboration or the chance to improve the course, you can also suggest those changes to the course designer or the faculty member who has initially organized that class.
So open-ended questions can invite a lot more thought.
The last point I am going to share today is about how students should bring in their own ideas, reflections, opinions, and experiences. There are a lot of subjects where we’re working very hard to help students argue and analyze without opinion. In those subjects, I would suggest separating out the personal reflection, opinions, and experiences part to a second half of the forum post. Maybe you’re going to have them analyze and argue a point, and then come back and share their reflection about it or their opinion about it.
One reason I’m heavy on personal reflection, opinions and experiences is that these are the ways students personalize their learning, and this is what helps them to make something new out of it for themselves. It creates connections in the brain and soon the student’s going to care a lot about the subject, or at least have opinions on it and be able to think about it later. So those personal reflection elements are critical.
In future podcast episodes, I will discuss ways to apply critical thinking, interpretation, problem-solving, persuasion, and analysis, debates, and different topics so I hope you will join me again in the future for additional thoughts about discussion forums online.
Until then, I wish you all the best in starting your discussions, engaging with your students, and creating form prompts that really work for you. Best wishes teaching online this week.
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.