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Best Practices | Raising the Bar in Online Discussions

So you have decided that you want to create discussions for your online class. If your reason for creating online discussions is that you want to replicate those same style discussions you have in your face-to-face classes, you might be wasting your time. Online discussions are a great element to add to your bag of tricks for an online course, however, online discussions are very different than what you have in your face-to-face class. There is no one sitting in the front row waiting anxiously for you to ask a question they can pounce on. Likewise, there should be no one falling asleep in the back of the class that will miss this once in a lifetime opportunity to answer a defining question. Instead, you are writing a discussion prompt that will elicit a demonstration of knowledge and critical thinking from your students.


The dilemma that instructors often have is that they want to create those same engaging, spontaneous discussions they have in a face-to-face class in their new online space. The problem is they can’t; at least not exactly. Quite simply, the online course design is different therefore the discussion will be different. However, different is not a bad thing. Identify the positive outcomes related to an online discussion forum and emphasize those, as opposed to trying to make an online discussion mimic a classroom discussion (which may only be minimally successful). Instead, the online discussion should focus on what it can do well, and the results it can produce.


What does an online discussion offer? To begin with, it offers instructors the ability to prescribe expectations for students in terms of how they should participate, making it easier for instructors to grade participation and for students to understand what is required from them. This takes away the surprise element when students receive their participation grade. Online discussions leave room for the quiet thinkers in the class, who now have the ability to be involved in the discussion and possibly offer the point of view that the front row dweller never revealed. Now the discussions can require students do some research on their own to find a resource to quote or that helps defend their position in the discussion. They can think, discover, analyze and critique…all while forming their post. It’s likely that these higher-level learning skills are not part of the spontaneous responses instructors receive in the traditional classroom.


As with any discussion, the role of the instructor is a vital one. Remember to be present in the discussions by probing for more information if needed, praising those who are providing exemplary posts, and modeling what you expect from students in terms of responses. Instructor involvement lets students know that their posts are worthwhile, and that their participation is acknowledged.


It should still be stated that face-to-face classroom discussions are indeed beneficial. They absolutely have a purpose and fulfill a need in the physical classroom of four walls and desks with students. But what is key is that we recognize the differences between face-to-face and online courses, particularly when it comes to discussions. There are clear benefits to online discussions, so knowing these benefits and designing a course to make the most of these online discussions ultimately creates better online course design – the end product we are all striving for.