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Best Practices | Facilitating Engaging Discussions

Asynchronous discussions are a very effective means of engaging students and enhancing understanding irrespective of whether you are teaching a fully online or a blended/hybrid course. Nevertheless, planning a successful online discussion can be one of the most challenging aspects of an online course. In an online or blended course, much of the shared learning takes place in an asynchronous discussion board; therefore, it is impetrative that instructors carefully craft effective and engaging discussion prompts. In addition, the methods instructors use to facilitate their discussion forums are also critical to the success of the assignment. This article will address the benefits of using discussions in an online course, strategies for designing engaging discussions, and methods for successfully facilitating discussions online.


The benefits of utilizing high-quality discussions in an online course are numerous. They are essential in the effort to build and maintain a community of learners. According to MGH Institute (2017): They also serve as the "classroom" where ideas are raised, examined, and resolved. Online discussions provide an opportunity for students to do more than re-state information learned in class. They are forums that allow students to bring in outside information, relate course content to real-world events, and apply the material. Discussions can allow for interaction and collaboration that is often lacking in online classes.


Online discussion forums offer the capacity for asynchronous discussion to take place over a certain length of time. Online discussions differ from discussions in face-to-face courses as they provide students with more time to respond. The greater response time given to students allows them to carefully think about and develop their ideas and craft a well-considered response. Furthermore, the reflective nature of discussions encourages students to think critically as they formulate their responses. Since students' responses are seen by all their peers and are able to be reread at will, students will often take care when crafting their responses. Often they will integrate research into their responses, which increases knowledge.


Discussions provide an outlet for exploratory learning. This type of learning takes place when students consider new material and investigate relationships between their background knowledge and the new material. Online discussions often require students to communicate with people with differing experiences and ideas. As they do this, they gain new perspective. Another benefit to using discussions is that all students in an online discussion have a voice. In face-to-face classes only some students get to respond. Online discussions require that all students share their input and ideas. Students often feel more comfortable contributing to online discussions, as the feeling of judgment is often decreased.


Designing an effective and high-quality discussion forum can be challenging and it is critical that the dialogue is meaningful and aligned with course learning objectives and/or outcomes. When developing discussion prompts it is best to use open-ended questions as they offer students a way to respond differently. It allows for multiple answers or solutions and varying responses and ideas. Closed-questions, like yes or no questions and questions that require a response from the textbook, do not provide openings for any discussion. It is also important to not overwhelm students by asking more than one question at a time. Rich discussions can occur when students are asked to take a pro/con position on issues - especially if they are required to find support for a topic they oppose.


Another useful strategy is to provide students with differing yet related prompts and divide them into smaller workgroups to encourage more in-depth discussion. When designing discussions it is also important to establish ground rules for how the students are expected to communicate with each other, set policies and put them in the course, and set the stage for civil and respectful discussions ahead of time. Finally, let the students know how you plan on evaluating their contributions. Provide a rubric with clear grading criteria. This will lessen any confusion they may have about expectations. Also plan on grading the discussions - this will add value to student effort and provide incentives for posting and replying.


After the discussions have been developed, it is time to facilitate the forum. Instructors should try to avoid the urge to jump in with the "right" answer as this can make students feel self-conscious and impede interaction. A better way to encourage communication is to ask students probing questions. Students acquire and form new knowledge as they ask questions and explore understandings and misunderstandings. In addition, while moderating the discussion forum, ask students to clarify or expand on their contributions and encourage them to react or build on their peers' comments. Remember, when instructors participate in the discussion it adds value to the students' work. Also, 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 (University of Waterloo, 2013). Student participation will usually increase when instructors are more active in the discussion forum.


If you would like more information on developing and facilitating discussions in a distance learning or hybrid/blended course, please contact a member of the instructional design team.


References

Centre for Teaching Excellence at University of Waterloo. (2013). Collaborative online learning: fostering effective discussions. Retrieved February 21, 2017, from https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/alternatives-lecturing/discussions/collaborative-online-learning  

MGH Institute of Health Professions. (2017). Designing Online Discussions. Retrieved February 21, 2017, from https://www.mghihp.edu/faculty-staff-faculty-compass-teaching/designing-online-discussions