The Importance of Online Discussions and How to Make Them Awesome

Contributed By

Dylan Rodgers

Content Strategy Manager and Editor in Chief of the Schoology Exchange

The Importance of Online Discussions and How to Make Them Awesome

Posted in Evolving Ed | November 08, 2016

Do you participate in online discussions? Anyone who frequents blogs, forums, or other social feeds knows the power of online conversations—as long as they remain constructive, of course.

But for anyone still on the fence as to whether you should join in online discussion and use them in your classrooms, meetings, or other learning spaces, Kristie Burk has some thoughts that might inspire you to dive in.

Kristie is the Blended and Cyber Learning Coordinator for the Downingtown Area School District in Chester County, Pennsylvania, the NEXT 2016 Administrator of the Year, and a Schoology Ambassador.

Here's what she had to say:

Why do you think it’s important for students to participate in online discussions? What are the benefits?

Written responses provide time to reflect and synthesize information before writing. This is a more complex process than speaking in class discussions and more effective for learning. The sheer act of having to write your response rather than say it is important.

Also, online conversations minimize the risk that someone will dominate the conversation. The people who talk more online may not necessarily be the same people that are talking in class; for example, Harvard studied their own online discussions and found that female students talk more online than in face-to-face conversations. Online discussions also increase the involvement of introverted students who are reluctant to speak out in class.

One thing about online discussions is that students can’t hide. Either you say something or you don’t. Either your post is there or it’s not. And people have to respond to you.

Another nice part of online discussion is that it provides a record of the students’ thoughts, so a teacher can look back and see what the student understands and what she might not understand. You can’t do that in a discussion where people are just talking.

What are your suggestions for keeping students engaged during online discussions?

Teachers have to do a better job of creating discussion questions that get the conversation going without much involvement on the teacher’s part. When teachers are removed from the conversation, students talk to and learn from each other.

Here are some tips to developing a vigorous conversation:

  • Have students pick a side or disagree on purpose. There’s a couple of different ways to do that. You can pick a topic and say this half of the group has to support this side and the other half has to support the other. For example, half the students represent Romeo and the other half Juliet, and they have to have a discussion online. We train teachers to use challenge to increase engagement. Students should challenge what somebody is saying, and if they truly believe in something, they should be able to defend it. You should know the other side of the issue and what the other side is going to say.
  • Use a rubric. It’s really important to have a discussion with students about what a good discussion looks like. In a workshop for teachers, I did an exercise where we all made a rubric together as a group. A few things you should be looking for are do students ask good questions; do they support what you’re saying with evidence; do they build on other people’s ideas? Research found that highly structured online engagement was more effective in facilitating critical thinking and interaction than discussions with less structure.
  • Have students label their posts. They have to post what kind of response it is—for example, elaborating and clarifying, making connections, questioning, challenging. A study by Fei Gao at Bowling Green State University showed that students’ answers improved in quality and quantity, not only while they were labeling their responses but later on when they were participating in other discussions.
  • Have a discussion connecting what you’re studying to real world applications, especially for science and math topics.
  • Don’t worry about the risk of going off topic in online discussions. Sometimes when you go off topic that actually improves your learning because you’re making connections between what you’re actually talking about and other things that you know.

What are the most promising outcomes you see from encouraging students to have robust online discussions?

Although there is not a lot of research yet in this area, one study conducted by Robert Jorczak and the Online Learning Consortium showed that students who participated in online discussions performed better on course exams than students who only participated in class discussions. Other limited studies have shown that students actually learn better when they participate in a high quality discussion online.

In an online course, often students are working alone without interaction with others. But, I believe that online discussions foster a sense of community and connection between the teachers and the students and each other. As a result everyone talks to each other and students don’t feel alone. Online discussion fosters collaboration and higher order thinking skills that better prepare students for the type of work they’ll find in college and career.

Once teachers and students learn how to have robust online conversations, there is never any doubt as to what the students know and what needs to be retaught.

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