We need to talk.
Is there a more dreaded four-word sentence on earth?
Well, my beloved online teachers, we need to talk. This is a discussion about discussions, because we need to talk about how to talk online.
The rules for online discussions are not obvious. I know first hand from years of online faculty professional development experience, it is difficult to teach faculty how to support an engaged and illuminating online discussion. Yet, it is essential to master this space because the vast majority of student and faculty exchanges in the online classroom happen in these cold, boring, sterile places referred to illogically as Discussion Boards.
Discussion boards in online classrooms generally employ blog software. As opposed to an authentic communication exchange as we know it, student discussion board posts tend to resemble small essays. Each week, students are required to write approximately 500 words where they take a stance, use evidence from the assigned readings, analyze the statistics on a phenomena, then cite their sources in an APA compliant list (that is difficult to format properly because of the limitations of the aforementioned blog software). Oh, the hours of fun a faculty member can have with students who have found it difficult to compose into the discussion board, so they have merely attached a word document. What screams “let’s chat” like a word document?
As a classroom investigator, I can tell you that for most online teachers, the Discussion Board resembles less of a conversation and more closely reads like a bizarre academic Shakespearean play where people spew full monologues at each other for days.
This volley of tl;dr soliloquies results in stilted exchanges. As online teachers, we need to bridge the gap to connect learners to content and to each other. Adult learner peers are really the most effective knowledge transfer agent in the online discussion board, yet few of us push students to actively engage with each other online.
With a few guidelines, you can vastly increase the overall quality of your classroom exchanges, and the trick is to lay down ground rules in the first week.
1. Online settings are built on tone: E-communication rules exist, and students must learn them. Because we cannot see each other in a physical shared space, we need to create new and clearly articulated guidelines for how to engage in a virtual discussion.
2. Students must be made to understand that discussion boards are graded spaces, and they will be assessed on their participation. Students gain from the experiences and professional stories that fellow learners share in the discussion board. When two students are describing similar phenomena, it can be beneficial to highlight the connection for the rest of the class.
3. Written text is easily misconstrued, and humor is not universal. Make sure to be mindful of the global, multi-denominational, inter-generational space that is the online discussion board. Students should be instructed to read their posts out loud before they upload it, and if any student is worried about an image or idea, tell them to pass it by you before they make it part of their academic record.
4. Learning is inherently emotional for adults. Make sure that as a faculty member you monitor all spaces for engagement gone awry. In the early weeks of the course, make sure to be in there on a daily basis and check all spaces where learners can interact. The discussion board can become dominated by some loud and strong voices and moderating the level of attention other student posts receive is essential. Try to vary who you engage with as students tend to read all the faculty responses.
5. Model professional best practices in all of your posts. Avoid all “Good job, Jane!” “Great post, Joe!” responses and make sure to have at least 4-6 sentences of text that acknowledges the best of the student’s discussion board entry. When possible, weave the insights in with another student’s observations, and then challenge the entire class to dig in deeper with questions that point back to the readings for the week.
When students have negative anticipation about participating in a virtual discussion, providing clear guidelines bolsters them as they work towards more proficient and professional online communication. When possible, embed links to academic support resources to provide students with the opportunity to activate dormant skills in writing. Warming up the dreaded discussion board takes work, yet it is worth it. Your course evaluations will thank you!