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Collaborative Online Learning: Fostering Effective Discussions

A student looking at a laptopFostering an effective discussion can be a challenging activity for an instructor in a face-to-face situation and can be even more challenging in an online setting. Here are some planning and facilitation strategies to help you to successfully implement collaborative online discussions into your own course.

Preparing to implement collaborative online discussions

  • Think about how the activity or activities will fit into your course. Whenever you are thinking about whether to introduce a new tool, activity or method into a course, it is essential that you consider both how and why you would use it. You should have a clear goal/objective for introducing the new tool and need to be able to articulate this to your students. This includes thinking about how the new tool will fit within the context of the course, how it will affect content, how it alters or adds to the teaching methods, how it will fit with your teaching philosophy and style, and perhaps most importantly from a student’s perspective, how it will affect the assessment methods. Remember that there should always be a good reason for using any new approach to teaching!
  • Spend as much time in advance as possible thinking through the new activity to balance interactivity and instructor workload. The more time you are able to spend before the course begins planning and creating the activities, the less time you will have to spend making important decisions about the course while it is in session. Online instruction can often mean more work for the instructor, but good course design and planning can help reduce the workload while the course is in session and can help make the quality of interaction between the instructor and the students more rewarding. This is also the time to consider what you could remove from your course. Online discussions should not be viewed as an "add-on"; rather, they should replace something else.
  • Plan how you will prepare the students for using the new tool or activity. Students cannot be expected to “know” how to discuss effectively either online or in­person. Nor can we expect them to “know” how to work effectively in a group setting, particularly in a virtual group. You will need to prepare students for the work they will be doing. This means not only teaching them the mechanics of using the new tool, but also how to have a discussion online. You will also need to prepare them for working in groups. Consider giving a workshop on group work to teach them how to work as a team in a face-to-face setting so groups can begin to understand the dynamics of their team and what their own role in the group will be. You can also model online how to have an effective discussion.

Facilitating an effective online discussion – teacher presence

  • Set-up expectations for the students engaged in the activity. Make sure that students understand the “rules of the road” for your discussion activity. What level of formality do you expect in postings? Are students expected to use grammatically correct language or is informal expression and the use of slang and emoticons acceptable in your context. Students may need a reminder of acceptable online behaviour; to be courteous and respectful in their communication style, content, and tone. Provide a rubric to help students understand how they are going to be assessed on in the discussion activity. Helping the students get started in their group activities online is an important first step in ensuring success. As they start to discuss online, drop into their discussions to provide focus to the discussion or to draw attention to particular concepts or information that is necessary to frame or pursue knowledge growth. This is also important in terms of helping the students to see that the key to success lies as much in the process of discussion, as it does in the product. Encourage them to draw on previous knowledge and experiences and respond to others' comments directly as they think critically about the discussion questions.
  • Help students get started in their discussion. Helping the students get started in their group activities online is an important first step in ensuring success. An online icebreaker activity can help students get to know each other online and reduce the awkwardness of discussing a topic with strangers. Alternatively arrange for your students to meet face-to-face as a group before they start their online discussion if that option is possible. As they start to discuss online, drop into their discussions to provide focus to the discussion or to draw attention to particular concepts or information that is necessary to frame or pursue knowledge growth. This is also important in terms of helping the students to see that the key to success lies as much in the process of discussion, as it does in the product. Encourage them to draw on previous knowledge and experiences and respond to others' comments directly as they think critically about the discussion questions. E-mail people who are not participating to find out if they are experiencing technical difficulties with the online forum.
  • Use your presence to motivate and encourage students. Perhaps one of the most important aspects for the instructor who uses online discussions is teacher presence. This happens by posting the discussion questions, directing the groups in the discussions, and by providing feedback on how the discussion is going. Strategies include the following: ask questions (these are called “trigger questions”); give and ask for examples; identify students who are good at making connections between posts; create “weaving” posts to link other’s good ideas together to advance the discussion, (example “V and X make a good point,… What do others think?”). These regular posts will keep the conversation moving forward. However it is critical to give enough time to let the discussion develop without intervention, but to guide the discussion if it goes off course or is flagging. The instructor’s presence helps to keep students focused on the task at hand and can help to refine discussions so that the conversations progress past basic information sharing to knowledge construction and, ideally, application and integration of the knowledge. Students who are able to make connections to previous knowledge and experience see the relevance of the material and experience increased motivation. When instructors explicitly recognize and reward this level of learning they can also encourage further knowledge growth.
  • Provide direct instruction to the students. Direct instruction and feedback to the groups is sometimes necessary to keep them on track with the discussion. This can also help to diagnose misconceptions, which may impair a group's ability to learn effectively from the discussion. A summarizing final comment can be a helpful way to sum up and end a discussion. Overall, the instructor’s comments and questions to the groups can be invaluable and can serve as a model for how the discussion should unfold.
  • Provide access to resources. The instructor can provide access to a wealth of resources which students can be referred to for further individual or group study. Hyperlinks to online resources can be especially helpful, as they are easy for students who are already online to access.
  • Provide technical assistance. The instructor may be asked to provide direct instruction about technical issues related to accessing the conferencing system, manipulation of the conferencing software, operation of other tools or resources and the technical aspects of dealing with any of the subject related tools and techniques. Have a plan in place to handle these requests.
  • Practical considerations for facilitating online. It can become overwhelming to read through a busy discussion forum with lots of posts and replies. Make sure to ask students to create new threads if new topics evolve in the discussion. “Subscribing” to receive e-mail alerts of new postings can help participants keep up with a conversation without checking back into the discussion forum repeatedly.

Resources

  • Terry Anderson et. al., "Assessing Teaching Presence in a Computer Conferencing Context," JALN 5, 2 -September, 2001
  • Mark H. Rossman, "Successful Online Teaching Using An Asynchronous Learner Discussion Forum," JALN, 3, 2 - November, 1999
  • Xun Gee et. al., "Pre-Class Planning to Scaffold Students for Online Collaborative Learning Activities," Educational Technology and Society, 3, 3 2000
  • Online Classroom: Ideas for Effective Online Instruction, November, 2001.
  • Salmon, G. (2004). E-moderating: the key to teaching and learning online. 2nd edition.London: Routledge.