Discussion Designs for Online and Hybrid Courses
Discussion boards, a familiar tool common to all learning management systems, can be one of the most valuable features of online and hybrid courses. By virtue of their social energy and their capacity to capture evidence of learning as it happens, well designed discussions can be great instructional assets. Poorly designed discussions, on the other hand, can easily devolve into minefields of learning mismanagement.
Discussion is the lifeblood of so much online activity. Between the comments we leave at the bottoms of blog pages, underneath YouTube videos, in the feedback areas of online shopping portals, not to mention the many bon mots we share on social networking sites, one might think both we and our students would know how discussion is done. One might assume that the same skill set that leads to sweet tweets sweet and pithy status updates would equip us to hold our own in intellectually rigorous discussions about serious issues.
It ain’t necessarily so.
Although discussions held in online courses may turn out to be the most valuable part of a course for many students, for an online discussion to truly benefit students’ learning, it should be set up with great care and conducted with discipline and fairness, as well as a respectful awareness of the standards and conventions of discourse practiced by members of academic and other professional communities.
Although this article does not say nearly all there is to say about designing and conducting discussions in online and hybrid courses, I hope it will serve as introduction enough to help teachers start to think about ways to incorporate discussion as a component in the learning spaces they and their students co-create.
The Value Proposition of Online Discussion
The reason that the learning that can happen in discussion can be so valuable is that discussion involves the whole person. It is thoroughly multidimensional. It taps all the faculties of everyone in the mix, forcing anyone who takes part to operate on many levels at once. There’s the social level that requires the person to pick up on and relay emotional cues about herself and the other members of the group. There’s the content level that requires her to give thought to what she says so that her contributions are credible and help the group build understanding together. And then there’s even a level of facilitation for which all who participate in a discussion share responsibility. On this third level, discussants act like teachers, offering questions and suggestions to help their discussion partners improve the quality of their contributions. (In naming these levels of participation I am drawing directly upon an article, “Designing and Orchestrating Online Discussions” by David Baker which I’ve included in the list of resources at the end of this piece.)
Threaded discussions in online and hybrid courses, in addition to reinforcing and extending students’ understanding of course material, also provide opportunities to underscore connections to be found between discussion objectives and students’ career preparation. Students are always interested to learn how their coursework can be understood to prepare them to do work in the “real world”. In this vein, discussions can be seen as training grounds for analytical and deliberative communication in other spaces, both face to face and online, in school and elsewhere.
Although the discussions I have in mind are threaded and asynchronous, and take place in the discussion spaces of learning management systems, much of what I’ll say here could also apply to synchronous discussions (as in live group chats) as well.
The Set Up
The best place to start the conversation with students about the shape discussions will take in a course is in the first point of contact a teacher has with them: the syllabus. In the syllabus one can prepare students to approach class discussion as an important dimension of their learning experience, making it clear that their full and engaged participation in discussion is an expectation for their participation, and framing discussion activities as fundamental to students’ growth and to the health of the class’ learning community.
By establishing strong guidelines for discussion-based interaction before discussion begins, teachers set the stage for productive and satisfying interactions to take place. It is here that one can begin to detail for students any standards and conventions of academic and other professional discourse one has for them.
Information concerning how discussions will be conducted can be related in three sections or categories: discussion logistics, netiquette, and assessment.
Describing the parameters of discussion, one might speak of standards and conventions not as rules so much as intentions and aspirations for students to adopt and strive for, because knowing and observing them will support clear communication in the class and create a positive atmosphere for learning, skills they can carry confidently into the working world. Having grokked the value of discussion on this aspirational level, students may feel more motivated to learn where they need to go and what they need to do to get underway.
It is sometimes easy to forget that one’s learning management system, especially if one is teaching a lower level course, may be foreign territory to many of one’s students. Fortunately, it is usually quite easy connect students to information that will help them navigate to the discussion board itself and acquaint them with the mechanics of reading and writing in that space. Shared through the syllabus, this information can then be followed by explanations of expectations for their posts and tips to help them meet those expectations.
Since I use D2L for my courses, I refer my students to a discussions tutorial that specifically deals with discussion in D2L. The tutorial helps them understand how to read posts and post replies within discussion threads. The guide also describes other operations, should it become desirable for students to do other things, such as start their own threads, rate posts, etc. Other learning management systems offer comparable documentation. One might even give one’s students a quiz at first to make sure they understand this basic information, and/or require them to post a brief “hello” message to a “sandbox” or practice discussion to test their wings.
Design of Discussion
One of the most important lessons students learn in college, quite apart from their regular curriculum, is how to manage their time. This is particularly true when they take online classes that feature discussions, for discussion depend for their success on students’ conscientious participation, sometimes in several phases throughout a given week.
This is why it is good to present, in the syllabus, in a section devoted to discussion/time management, an overview of commitments related to students’ participation in every discussion to be held in the course. With respect to when they will need to read (or write) instructions for discussions, and when they will need to read and respond to posts to discussion threads, students should be warned in advance.
What assignments students do, and when they will do them, will vary, of course, depending on the course objectives and actual time limits. For now, with respect to the design and orchestration of discussion, three general interaction patterns come to mind These can be deployed by themselves or in combination, depending on the need Let’s call these patterns the “Lone Wolf”, the “Icebreaker”, and “The Cascade”.
“The Lone Wolf”
I call this discussion configuration the “Lone Wolf” because it makes use of separate discussion threads, each one initiated by a single student. For example, if the course is a literature course in which student are reading The Great Gatsby, instructions for a Lone Wolf discussion might ask each student to post, as the start of a thread within a forum named “Gatsby”, his or her own question about the book. Or, the instruction could focus a bit more on one aspect of the text, say its characters, and ask each student to post a question about a character or a relationship between two or more characters in the novel. Additional guiding questions may be added to the prompt as desired (see the section on Assessment, below).
Along with the initial instruction to post a question, instructions for a Lone Wolf discussion should come with a schedule for follow up replies, and, if desired, rules about the distribution of replies to initiating posts. In some cases, one may wish to be sure that all questions get at least one or two replies, in which case the discussion instructions might say something like, “Post one reply each to four different initiating questions (threads) in the forum; do not post replies to questions in answer to which three or more replies have already been posted.” On the other hand, one may wish to let students vote with their posts for the questions they find most interesting and/or important to consider. In that case, the instructions might say, “Reply to three questions of your choice.”
In either case, discussion prompts should be open (like open questions on a survey). Discussion thrives on “what”, “why”, and “how” questions that invite reflection and opinion (with the subsequent expectation, in academic settings, that opinion be supported by critical analysis).
Another way of organizing a Lone Wolf discussion is to set up, as individual discussion threads, a reading or research journal for each student. In this scenario, each student gets one thread in which to write reflectively over time, often in response to a teacher’s prompts. Other students then read and reply to these entries as they are assigned or feel moved to do so. Compared with the Q&A configuration described above, this approach teaches students to work transparently, independently and collaboratively, to document their thinking and develop and deepen their questions about course materials.
The name for this configuration comes from David Baker’s work, cited below. In this scheme, students form small groups of between five and seven and, * in rotation*, one member of the group at a time assumes responsibility for initiating threads and responses. This facilitator is known as the “icebreaker”, hence the name of the configuration. Assignment instructions for icebreaker discussion cycles resemble instructions for class discussions on the Lone Wolf scheme; the difference is that discussion is limited to the members of the student group (usually between five and seven students) and that one student takes the lead in posing a question and initiating responses to that question. Thus, for example, the student assigned to be the icebreaker on a given week might pose the question, on Monday, “Why is Nick Carraway fascinated by Jay Gatsby?” and, after the rest of the group post replies that Tuesday, follow up on Wednesday with a second, related question, to which the rest of the group must respond on Thursday, perhaps leading up to a general group comment about characterization in The Great Gatsby which will be the group’s contribution to a general class discussion of narrative technique in the novel.
The student who is the icebreaker for a given week, then, serves as a discussant but also a teacher for her or his group, adding fuel (extra encouragement, information, clarification, etc.) to keep the discussion going and on track to make a contribution to a class objective. The following week another member of the group takes over as icebreaker and the cycle repeats with her or him at the helm. Keep in mind that the designated icebreaker will likely need extra coaching from the instructor to mature in her or his role as a peer facilitator.
This configuration comes from V. Kumar, of the Department of Health Informatics at the Medical College of GA, Augusta. In this model, a class is portioned into groups to complete group projects. Each group will work on its project for a period of weeks. The instructor announces general guidelines for the project at the top of a forum, giving each week of the project a defined deliverable (a progress report, a draft document, etc.), and providing for each group a new thread each week for each group’s members to use to communicate among themselves as they do their work for the week. Thus the discussion is used as a project management platform and communication among group members remains archived, organized, and the instructor can easily check in with the group and share feedback on its progress as needed.
Remember that files of all kinds may be attached to discussion posts. Because of this, a discussion thread can serve as a framework for version management (keeping track of successive drafts of a shared document that is edited by the group), or even as a framework for an audio or video discussion, with audio or video files linked or attached to the posts.
“The Cascade” gets its name from the notion that the information in successive threads (one group communication regarding work for a given week of a multi-week project) builds, week by week, to a group’s ultimate product for the assignment.
Whatever pattern a discussion takes, one should be sure of three things: (1) that each discussion have a deadline and a clear schedule if multiple posts are required, (2) that one provides clear evaluation rubrics to guide students when they write their posts (more on this in the evaluation section, coming up), and (3) that each discussion leads the class or group toward the fulfillment of a stated objective, preferably the completion of an assignment with a graded product. By meeting these conditions, discussion is likely to remain a manageable, fair, and obviously enriching part of the course for everyone.
Before I discuss evaluation, let me briefly address another issue affecting discussions: netiquette, or the comportment of discussant participants. Good netiquette protects the quality of discourse in a discussion. Bearing on the quality of communication among discussants, therefore, netiquette will also figure in the evaluation of students’ posts.
Netiquette is a big topic. Whole books have been written about it, and it is worth taking the time before a discussion to help students consider how their communication style will influence the quality of the learning environment the ensuing discussion will create.
Some rules of netiquette are pretty obvious, but still bear repeating. For example, there is the face to face rule (don’t write in an online discussion anything you would not say to face of the person to whom your writing is directed). Other practices may require some acculturation, for example the practice of filtering crowdsourced responses to a research question before sharing results in a post on a forum:
It’s especially polite to share the results of your questions with others. When you anticipate that you’ll get a lot of answers to a question, or when you post a question to a discussion group that you don’t visit often, it’s customary to request replies by email instead of to the group. When you get all those responses, write up a summary and post it to the discussion group. That way, everyone benefits from the experts who took the time to write to you. (Shea)
As with the structural patterns of discussions themselves, guidelines for the comportment of discussants will vary somewhat depending on the situation. Borrowing from Mintu-Wimsatt et al. (2010), however, Baker points to some netiquette guidelines that would seem to apply in most circumstances:
- Avoid dominating discussions, offensive words, and criticism of others
- Use plain English and flawless spelling and writing mechanics
- Consider alternative perspectives while expressing your own opinion
- Share insights while seeking the views of others
- Follow the institution’s student code of conduct
- Clarify important points with the instructor and review carefully any communications before sending. (Baker)
The purpose of these rules that govern how folks who are in on the discussion should “speak” to each other is to guard against abusive and counterproductive behavior in the threads. Everyone who takes part in a discussion should help set a tone and build an atmosphere of safety and support in which discussants may relax and make contributions from their most intelligent, sensitive and creative selves. Students should look forward to visiting the discussion board and should feel secure when they get there, where they should look forward to positive and constructive interactions. They may not always find agreement, but they should be able to count on their peers’ respectful curiosity and support for their intellectual growth.
With all the questions and responses they elicit, and the time for reflection they allow, discussions offer ideal situations for guiding and encouraging the intellectual growth of each and every participant. And discussion rubrics (sets of instructions that take into consideration a discussion’s objectives and evaluative criteria) provide a perfect place to begin an evaluative dialog with each student.
In the syllabus or in the learning management system, but in any case before a discussion begins, rubrics give students guidelines that help them know not just what they should aim to do in the discussion but also how they should aim to do it. In other words, one should use rubrics to prepare students for formative feedback that will address certain aspects of their performance, and link those aspects to stated course objectives. (Remember that while a discussion is going on, the instructor always has the option to communicate with students by email to nudge them if they need to be nudged; the rubric provides the general guidelines for a student’s part in a discussion that could be used as a starting point for a corrective consultation.)
What shape do they take? Rubrics can be as simple as textual lists of instructions and/or evaluative criteria included along with other instructions for an assignment. Another popular form is a table, with rows of orienting information organized by evaluative category, as in this example from the University of Wisconsic Stout. Rubrics may also be interrogative, putting in students’ heads questions they can ask themselves as they take part in a discussion, to evaluate their own posts.
Typical discussion rubrics convey specs that reward posts that add new information to a discussion, exemplify writing that is considered”correct” in the context of the course setting, posts that know and forecast their focus throough a concise subject line, and which stimulate further discussion through questions and suggestive or provocative conclusions (Pelz).
It is sometimes hard for instructors who may be used to doing most of the talking themselves to set students up for discussions, then fade into the background and let students lead. And yet, it is the ability to do just this — to guide from the side — that many distinguished teachers point to as the defining, most transformative move of their pedagogy (Pelz, Hanford).
Let the discussion lead its own life. Let it take unexpected turns. Think of it as an occasion for purposeful peer interaction whose outcomes are never a foregone conclusion. Then work with the conclusions that come.
Above all, a discussion board provides a powerful venue in which to convince each and every participant, experientially, that she or he is accepted and has something worthwhile to say.
Baker, D. “Designing and Orchestrating Online Discussions ” JOLT. Vol 7. No 3. Sept. 2011.
“Discussions“. D2L Resource Center. Web. 23 May 2015.
“Discussion Rubric.” Discussion Rubric. Web. 23 May 2015.
Kumar, V. “Cascade Model for Online Discussion Boards in an E-Learning Environment” iJet. vol 5, no 1. 2010.
“Open and Closed Questions“. Changingminds.org. Web. 23 May 2015.
“THE CORE RULES OF NETIQUETTE.” The Core Rules of Netiquette. Web. (Excerpted from Netiquette by Virginia Shea). 23 May 2015.
Pelz, B. “(My) Three Principles of Effective Online Pedagogy“. JALN vol 8, Issue 3. June 2004.