Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Inside The Online Cl@ssroom - Improving Discussions

Anyone who has taught online knows discussion forums sometimes illicit perfunctory, ill-considered student responses: “Good job. I agree with you.” OR “I like what you wrote. It is important.” Often the discussion goes nowhere, along with the instructor’s goal of creating an active, engaged learning environment.

Lolita Paff, associate professor of business at Penn State-Berks, offers tips for creating memorable interactions in the April 2015 edition of The Online Cl@ssroom. Paff recommends three changes to the way most discussion forums are run.

First, carefully consider the content of such discussions, making sure they are relevant and interesting to students. After all, Paff notes, “Indifference is the bane of noteworthy discussions…Online, the content may matter more because people aren’t physically together.” If students don’t connect with a topic, they will simply go through the motions, meeting the instructor’s minimum requirements. To help students engage in a topic, Paff suggests using current events, case studies, and what-if scenarios. Find ways for students to use their own research and personal reflection to provide input and ideas.

Second, creating community is vital to maintaining quality discussions. Paff endorses the idea of having a “discussion about discussions.” Have students define participation for themselves, explain why it’s important, and describe how it can bridge the distance between all class participants—professors and students.

Third, relinquish some control in online discussions, just as you would in face-to-face discussions. Paff points to research indicating that students are unlikely to participate if the professor seems to be the only source of classroom knowledge. Moreover, she remarks, “Unscripted, happenstance, and disorderly describe the lively exchanges most often remembered.” Still, Paff clarifies that online instructors must actually plan if they want online discussions to have an impromptu feel. Online instructors should scaffold discussions so that students have an increasing amount of control over what happens.

If you would like to examine Paff’s entire article or read more from The Online Cl@ssroom, a copy is available in the Center for Teaching Excellence. Stop by, visit us, and maybe even have a cup of coffee.