The ABCs Οf High Quality Online Discussions

The ABCs Οf High Quality Online Discussions
Summary: Discussion boards, or threaded discussions, are probably one of the most commonly used tools in online learning. They provide the means for asynchronous discussion to occur over a period of time. It is critically important to encourage conditions and behaviors for successful learning in discussion forums.

How To Improve Online Discussions

The role of the instructor is to encourage critical reflection with thought-provoking questions. Instructors should also encourage students to respond to each other.

I use the ABCs of high quality online discussions as a starting point for feedback that impacts student performance:

  • Acknowledge the student's input. A quick response by the instructor helps to begin the interaction with the students and keeps them motivated.
  • Build on students' ideas by adding content, perspectives, experience, reference to the readings, etc.
  • Conclude with a focused follow-up question as a way to tie off the conversation with all students. I like to use a provocative question that facilitates critical thinking that goes beyond the facts.

When managed well by the instructor, forum discussions become the heart of an online course and many times eclipse those found in face-to-face classes. They allow for reflection time and critical thinking in which even the most introverted students get involved.

Based on my 17 years of teaching online, I have some additional suggestions that may help improve the asynchronous discussions in your online course.

  1. Build community in your online course from the start.
    In many of my online courses, particularly at American Military University, I have students from throughout the United States and the world. Developing a sense of community for online learners is a key ingredient for making the learning process successful and should be carefully planned, nurtured and energized by the instructor. A great way to break the ice in an online course is to share something personal, and a good design in online courses is to allow students to interact socially as well as academically. Many students begin the class nervous and unsure about their ability to connect with the instructor and fellow students. For my first discussion, I ask students to share something about themselves with the class (hobbies, pets, etc.) and provide photos if possible. With the opportunity to get to know each other a bit, students feel more comfortable discussing personal experiences related to the course topic.
  2. Actively contact students who don’t show up online.
    It is very important for instructors to carefully monitor their courses to keep track of which students have not entered the course. If I see that a student has not entered the course within 48 hours I actively pursue them. Sometimes a brief phone call is all it takes to help students solve simple problems and these students are then more inclined to become engaged with the course rather than to dropout.
  3. Go after the lurkers and engage them.
    Many students read the online discussions and postings of the other students but are reluctant to participate themselves. Again, I reach out to the students and give them helpful hints to improve online communication. For example, I point out that there are simple ways to check spelling and grammar before posting.
  4. Pick a hot topic.
    I use current events as a way to engage students and encourage a lively discussion on current issues that are related to what students are learning in the course. Since I teach biology and microbiology, the measles outbreak at Disneyland and the Ebola outbreak in East Africa have stimulated discussion and motivated active responses.
  5. Use a light hand and encourage other students to take the lead.
    Build on students' ideas by adding content, perspectives and experiences. Encourage students by pointing out their contributions to the discussion. This can promote student leadership by giving them a voice in the classroom.
  6. Plan for the unplanned.
    Sometimes an unplanned discussion can present a unique opportunity. Taking advantage of a current issue may seem a bit off track, but it can pique the interest of the class and provide active learning by capitalizing on the unplanned.
  7. Timing is critical.
    Most online courses run their discussion boards on a weekly basis. Typically they start the new discussion which begins on a Monday at midnight and runs until Sunday at 11:59 p.m. I usually ask students to make their initial post by mid-week and then require them to reply to two or three other students during the remainder of the week, fostering real peer interaction. I also reply to all initial posts. A prompt reply immediately conveys faculty presence and reinforces the value of student contributions.
  8. Quality counts.
    I let the class know that it is quality and not quantity that matters, especially in the student replies. A throwaway comment such as “Billy, I really liked your post” does nothing to add to the academic richness of the discussion. I encourage students to provide scholarly replies to other students supported with a scholarly reference or two.
  9. Employ a “final thoughts” posting to conclude the weekly discussion.
    Conclude the discussion with a focused follow-up question to tie off the topic. I introduce this early enough in the week to leave adequate time for reflection and critical thinking.

Discussion forums can be used to build learning communities and active discussions with students throughout the world. These best practices should help an instructor to foster vibrant online discussions.