Part of the goal of the coffee course blog is to build a social learning community (see below for more information). For this first (fun!) activity, take a photo of an object which represents an effective online discussion, post it here and tell us why you’ve chosen the object in the comments below.
How is the online environment different?
What is engagement and what does it mean to be engaged online? There are several mechanisms used to “legislate” engagement within physical spaces, such as imposing mandatory lecture and tutorial attendance, or including an assessable component on participation, equating some form of physical presence to engagement (Brown et al., 2018, p. 318 – 322).
Can we similarly measure this form of presence online, particularly within asynchronous discussions? For many, allocating marks to contributions on forums or using learning analytics to track students guaranteed some form of presence. But how comparable are online and offline presence? And is presence necessarily engagement? Conversations off- and online, for example, require different mechanisms: While offline conversations rely more on speech and body language, online conversations rely more on writing with the occasional video or audio (Brown et al., 2018, p. 318 – 322), communication (all while praying that technology works). As Morris and Stommel (2018, p. 86) explain:
“In the room with our students, we can know if they’re engaged and participating… In an online discussion forum, it’s difficult to observe such nuance, and impossible to quantitatively evaluate it.”
Online and offline spaces are different learning environments and hence, require different treatment and preparation. In this post, we will talk through some considerations when bringing discussions online. You can read more about engagement and how it changes online in our previous coffee course on Engaging Students Online.
Types of online discussions
Online discussions can broadly be separated into two categories:
- Synchronous discussions refer to online discussions that happen at the same time. These may include webinars via Adobe Connect/Zoom or live chats on Twitter.
- Asynchronous discussions occur when participants respond at different times, often at their convenience. This is most commonly in the form of an online forum – coffee course is a very good example of asynchronous learning!
Depending on the mode of teaching (e.g. fully online, blended), you may use both, either or none. Selecting which type of discussion will depend on the purpose of the discussion, the number of participants, the time, etc. Below is an infographic by McNamee (2018) describing the benefits and considerations of synchronous and asynchronous learning (note: beyond discussions).
Many of the considerations discussed below are quite similar to those we discussed in Day 1 and Day 2 of this course. Try to pick out the subtle differences – how do these change the way you conduct discussions online?
Plan: Who, What, When, Where, How?
Similar to face-to-face discussions, planning for online discussions is critical. In fact, facilitating effective online discussions is likely to require more planning and set-up than offline ones as they are complicated by hard- and software.
Here is a template adapted from Schliephake and Vogel (2018) to help you plan your online discussion:
Check out the full version of Schliephake and Vogel’s (2018) template here.
Motivation to participate
What motivates you to participate in coffee courses, or not? One of the most important considerations to have when designing online discussions is motivators. Why should your student participate in online discussions? Are they motivated by the topic or social aspects of the discussion (i.e. intrinsic motivation)? Or are they motivated by the marks or grade attached to participation (i.e. extrinsic motivation)?
According to Rovai (2007, p. 79), there is a significant increase in student participation and a “concurrent increase in sense of classroom community for courses in which discussions accounted for 10– 20% of the course grade compared to courses in which discussions were not graded.” As a medium that relies heavily on writing, which arguably requires more skill than speaking in the context of a discussion (e.g. grammar, feeling more accountable), students must be provided with significant motivation to participate where the outcomes of the activity are clear, specific and highly valued.
Active facilitation by the teacher also motivates students to participate more as they feel that their discussions are guided, valued and validated by the teaching staff.
Setting reasonable expectations
It can be quite tricky to get online discussions started if clear expectations are not put in place. This is particularly so if the discussions are graded as students are not certain if, for example, simply agreeing with a statement made by another peer is sufficient. Setting expectations upfront can help students craft their responses in a more thoughtful, reflective and respectful manner.
Rovai (2007) suggests drawing up a discussion rubric for students:
The discussion rubric developed by Rovai is very detailed and from my perspective, may alter discussions into assessments, particularly when marks/grades are involved. What do you think? How can we define and measure online discussions effectively? Do they necessarily land themselves as assignments?
Building student-led, community/social spaces
Effective online discussions are often led by student-to-student interactions as they encourage ownership of ideas, active engagement with peers and content, and construction of knowledge through dialogue (not forced instruction).
As a facilitator, your role is to provide guidance and encouragement when needed and move conversations forward to meet the purpose and learning objectives of the discussion rather than dominate the dialogue (Collison et al., 2000). Often, such engagement is facilitated by introducing informal discussion spaces or activities that promote social presence. These give students a sense that they are not talking into the void but to people who are real. Providing ice-breaker activities such as the first question posted at the beginning of this post can help students connect with their peers and build a sense of community.
Below are some resources where you can find good online ice-breaker activities:
- Conrad, R. & Donaldson, J. A. (2011). Engaging the Online Learner: Activities and Resources for Creative Instruction. USA, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Shriner, B. (2018). Adjunct World: 5 Creative Icebreakers Assignments for the Online Classroom. Retrieved from https://adjunctworld.com/blog/5-creative-icebreakers-assignments-for-the-online-classroom/
What constitutes effective online discussion?
What is the purpose of online discussion, really? Many of the considerations above lend itself to presence and attendance, not engagement or participation. Morris and Stommel (2013) specifically talks about this in their article, The discussion forum is dead; long live the discussion forum, which I highly recommend that you read before deciding on using an online forum. While self-motivated engagement is much more visible on social media such as Reddit, Twitter or Facebook, it is much less so within a teaching and learning context. How can we, then, measure the effectiveness of online discussions within this context? What constitutes effective online discussions for you?
Brown, C., Davis, N., Sotardi, V. & Vidal, W. (2018). Towards understanding of student engagement in blended learning: A conceptualization of learning without borders. In M. Campbell, J. Willems, C. Adachi, D. Blake, I. Doherty, S. Krishnan, S. Macfarlane, L. Ngo, M. O’Donnell, S. Palmer, L. Riddell, I. Story, H. Suri & J. Tai (Eds.), Open Oceans: Learning without borders. Proceedings ASCILITE 2018 Geelong (pp. 318-323).
Collison, G., Elbraun, B., Haavind, S. & Tinker, R. (2000). Facilitating online learning: Effective strategies for moderators. USA: Atwood Publishing.
McNamee, P. (2018). Synchronous vs Asynchronous Learning: Which is Right for your Learners?, LearnUpon. Retrieved from http://www.learnupon.com/blog/synchronous-learning-asynchronous-learning/.
Morris, S.M. & Stommel, J. (2018). An urgency of teachers: The work of Critical Digital Pedagogy. USA: Hybrid Pedagogy Inc.
Rovai, A. P. (2007). Facilitating online discussions effectively, The Internet and Higher Education, 10: pp. 77–88.