Helping Learners Get The Most Out Of Online Discussions

Helping Learners Get The Most Out Of Online Discussions
Summary: Online discussions are the lifeblood of an online class. Without rich, ongoing discussions, learning is minimized. However, many online courses don’t help online learners understand how to post a new idea or response; the types of communications or posts that contribute to learning or share examples of good posts. As a result, online learners are often left to their own devices with many online discussions stalling or sinking to a level of mediocrity.

How Learners Can Get the Most Out Of Online Discussions

This article outlines some basic guidelines to help online learners create and participate in richer and more substantive online discussions.

Posting Etiquette or Basics

Because learners have grown up with technology, we (old folks like me!) often assume that our online students know more than they actually do about such issues as online etiquette and communication. Therefore, I would strongly recommend making Online Learning 101 (How to post online) a part of any online course. In so doing, you can help online learners focus on some basic--but key--areas in online communication.

  • New Post/Responding to a Post.
    When introducing a new thought/concept/introduction, be sure to start by clicking "Add New Thread."
  • Subject Line.
    The subject line is important. When starting a new thread, make sure to create a subject line that both clues in the reader and catches the eye of your audience.
  • “Re”.
    When replying to a note, leave the "re:" portion of the subject line, but feel free to edit the subject line to express how you are extending the conversation. This way everyone can get a quick glance at the direction of the conversation within a thread without actually opening each posting.
  • When to Post.
    In online course I've taught, I set a minimum number of posts per week (e.g., at least twice per session) that students must complete to receive credit for participation. The goal here is to advance the knowledge of the group and this comes from active conversation. Further, posts should adhere to the standards described in the next section.
  • Whom to Address.
    Learners can have a conversation with everyone; with a few people or with one person. It’s important that they know who they are talking to—they might not want a private conversation to be shared with everyone. Similarly, they might want to share something with everyone, not just one person.
  • Language.
    It's important that online learners write for the medium, that is, avoiding the kinds of shortcuts one would use for text messaging.

Types of Posts

There are all sorts of posts or responses in an online environment. For example, posts can:

  • Initiate a thread
  • Respond to a thread
  • Affirmation (yes, no, I agree, great!, etc.)
  • Introduce a new idea
  • Reinforce/Expand upon existing comment
  • Ask a question
  • Answer a question
  • Evaluate information provided
  • Summarize/synthesize (comments)
  • Provide motivation
  • Provide feedback
  • Provide examples that illustrate topic in posting
  • Interpret/Infer (drawing conclusions from content or other postings)

Types of Learning Outcomes

One of the strengths of online learning is the metacognitive benefit--helping learners reflect on their own learning. One way to promote this metacognition is to require that online posts  demonstrate some level of learning.

I have outlined these learning levels—from lowest to highest—in the table below. I've found it helpful to orient online learners to  be aware of these levels of learning since their personal learning goal should be to move from lower levels (awareness and comprehension) to higher levels of learning (analysis, evaluation) as reflected in their posts.

Online Discussions Types of Learning Outcomes

Criteria for Posting

Online discussions are about writing and composition. Just as we would do in an offline composition course, we want to give online learners criteria by which their online communication will be evaluated, so that they can compose communications accordingly.

Online Discussions Criteria for Posting

Examples of Good and Poor Posts

We often give online learners no guidance on what constitutes a “good” online post and why. Providing a few examples of substantive and less substantive posts and discussing these with online learners, can really improve the quality of discussion. Below I outline  a few examples.

That’s great. Thanks for the idea.

While we want to make sure to affirm and thank people, and this is a good affirmation, make sure your posts are more substantive than this. If you look at the criteria above, this post may be marginally relevant and appropriate to the discussion, but does not show understanding; develop the topic; extend the discussion; or demonstrate quality.

The reading was really interesting. I learned a lot about levels of change.

This is a very poor example of a post. The writer doesn't tell us why the reading was interesting nor does he/she give evidence of what he/she learned. The post is really not relevant; shows no understanding of ideas; does not extend the discussion (in some ways, it ends the discussion); and does not demonstrate quality. Contrast it with the next example.

I thought the reading on follow-up was really helpful. Since I love sports, I loved the analogy that the workshop is like a football game and the in-school followup is like practice. I know I can do some of those examples of follow-up the article mentioned—for example, helping teachers use Backward Design to create a lesson and having ongoing conversations with teachers. But one suggestion is to do group-based PD in the school. I would have no idea how to do this. Does anyone have any suggestions?

This is a  good example of a post-- an "anchor." The participant demonstrates that he has read and thought about the reading. He (It is a “he”) provides evidence for why he thought something was useful. He extends the understanding of the topic (referring to follow-up as “practice.”) Finally, he posts a good question that invites discussion.