Understanding how and when students are engaged in your class can be challenging in both physical and virtual spaces since students participate differently depending on personality type, cultural background, language fluency, and individual ability. Instructors can use an online discussion platform like Ed Discussion to provide an additional channel for students to express themselves, whether they are teaching in-person or online. Online discussion can be a powerful tool for building a community as it allows students to reflect, express their thoughts and ideas, and interact with each other outside regular class time.
Research shows that asynchronous online discussion allows students and instructors to share their interests and learning, negotiate information, and construct new knowledge through conversation (de Lima et al., 2019). Leaving time between posts can lead to more reflective responses than are afforded in face-to-face environments. Online discussions can also present challenges that instructors can quickly address with a few simple strategies and features built into the Ed Discussion platform.
The information volume in an online discussion can become overwhelming and challenging to navigate, depending on class size and activity levels. Ed Discussion supports categories that organize conversations around different topics. This structure makes it easier for students and instructors to create and find relevant posts (See Ed Help: Setting Up Categories). In a new course, the default categories are General, Lectures, Sections, Problem Sets, Assignments, and Social. Instructors can customize and add additional categories based on the coursework, such as Labs, Tutorials, and Quizzes.
Instructor guidance, facilitation, and feedback play a key role in building meaningful dialogue (Onyema et al., 2019). Poor-quality posts tend to lower participation levels; however, monitoring every student's post is prohibitively time-consuming. To help prompt student thinking and shape more meaningful conversations, instructors can use thread templates to ensure students include all relevant information to answer their questions, keep the discussion high quality, and reduce unnecessary back-and-forth ( See Ed Help: Thread Templates).
Thread Template Editor
Reviewing performance over time and awarding participation points to students can similarly become a time burden for the instructor. To help streamline this process and provide insight into student activity, Ed Discussion includes built-in analytics that details contributions such as questions, answers, comments, views, likes, and staff endorsements. A dashboard-like interface displays summarized information with line charts and sortable lists of discussion contributors. This presentation provides at-a-glance details on class activities with links to drill down for more information about individual contributions. Instructors also can download analytics data as a CSV file for further analysis and scoring.
Online discussions often work best when instructors frame them as a knowledge-building rather than a knowledge verification activity. Asking open-ended questions, encouraging students to approach an issue from their unique perspective, and relying on peer interaction as a means of learning can be powerful motivators. Creating space for students to ask each other questions related to course content can also reduce the need for repetitive responses from the instructor. Lastly, providing multiple channels for students to participate in-person and online allows for a more equitable learning experience.
In the Spotlight on Teaching and Learning: Strategies for Asynchronous Discussions, the Center for Teaching and Learning shares different approaches and types of activities instructors can use in asynchronous discussions to increase student engagement, including small groups, jigsaw, word cloud, and images and video.
EDUCAUSE provides 10 Tips for Effective Online Discussions to help ensure that online discussions are engaging and beneficial for postsecondary students. These tips include setting clear expectations, providing feedback, tracking participation, selecting discussion leaders, and knowing when to log out.
de Lima, D. P. R., Gerosa, M. A., Conte, T. U., & de M. Netto, J. F. (2019). What to expect, and how to improve online discussion forums: the instructors’ perspective. Journal of Internet Services and Applications, 10(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13174-019-0120-0
Onyema, E. M., Deborah, E. C., Alsayed, A. O., Quadri, N. N., & Sanober, S. (2019). Online discussion forum as a tool for interactive learning and communication. International Journal of Recent Technology and Engineering, 8(4), 4852–4859. https://doi.org/10.35940/ijrte.d8062.118419
Seyon Wind is the Online Discussions Service Lead with Research, Teaching, and Learning and is pursuing a Master's degree in Instructional Science and Technology from California State University, Monterey Bay.