Promoting Productive Classroom Discussions Through Your LMS
Using your learning management system (LMS) to conduct classroom discussions allows for students to post and respond at their own pace and on their own schedule. Students, particularly those that do not think as quickly on the spot or like to participate verbally in class, may find it liberating to have time to ponder and process their thoughts before sharing them with classmates. Online discussion also prepares students for a world that is increasingly asynchronous, and many in-person strategies for discussion can be modified to work in an online environment.
These promises also belie potential pitfalls. Because students can work at their own pace and on their own schedule, they may procrastinate or blow off discussions entirely. Some students may not type as fast or edit themselves appropriately online. Others will be tempted to write only informally and not in an academic manner. Go into this process with open eyes. Your students need you to expect the worst of the online discussion format so you can prepare them to be at their best.
Set and Quantify Expectations Early
Hybrid or fully online classes require more effort up front to establish class discussion protocols that will be followed with fidelity throughout the duration of each course, especially if planning to deliver the class in a fully asynchronous format. At a minimum, your school should develop common syllabi that outline common expectations and implement common grading practices across all coursework on your learning management system.
For example, let's say you want to conduct a weekly classroom discussion via your LMS. When is a student's initial post due each week? How many replies will you require? When will those replies be due? What constitutes a "quality" post or reply? Will you require students to cite sources in the initial post only, in the initial post and any replies, or not at all (not recommended)? What constitutes exemplary ("A") work in these areas and what would be considered average ("C") work? All of these items should be discussed and vetted out ahead of time by a designated team and reinforced with students and parents at every opportunity.
For the initial response to a discussion prompt, you'll want to encourage quality alongside reasonable quantity. Requirements may vary by the needs of each prompt, but in general a student could probably make a quality initial post in two to three paragraphs, or roughly 250-500 words, give or take. A quality first post meets timelines for participation set by the teacher/class, appropriately synthesizes and applies course material, demonstrates critical thinking, and uses appropriate language and grammar skills and uses an appropriate level of citation as needed.
Replies to a Classroom Discussion
A reply may be shorter than the initial post, perhaps one or two paragraphs long, and you may want to require students to reply to at least two peers to ensure a good level of overall participation. A quality reply consists of responding directly to the content in another person's post and extending their thinking or posing a thoughtful question regarding that content. You will be able to tell a lot about your classroom culture by monitoring discussion post replies.
Think of it this way: In improvisational theater (think The Second City), saying "no" to someone else during an improvised scene kills the scene. By the same token, explicitly rejecting another student's post or not adding anything productive to it kills the thread or allows it to devolve into negative argumentation. By discussing and modeling what a quality online discussion reply looks like ahead of time, you can teach students to pursue a tactic of "yes, and…" instead of "no, actually…" in their discussions.
If a student disagrees with the content of another post, they can still pursue "yes, and…" by how they phrase that disagreement. Instead of saying "no, you're wrong," what if you could get students to start with:
"I understand what you are saying about Ophelia's mental state in Hamlet and I appreciate the evidence you shared from her relationships with Hamlet and Polonius, but I want to challenge the notion that she was insane. Here are three examples to consider…"
We need to teach students how to challenge one another intellectually without resorting to the blunt force of "no."
Teach and Maintain Netiquette
As anyone who has ever read the comments section—not the comments section on this blog, of course!—will tell you, we do not live in a great age of digital citizenship, or what was often called "netiquette" in the magical world of the 1990s. This can be different on your school's LMS, however, and students will rise to the challenge.
The ISTE Standards for Students are a great place to start. In your online discussions, you can help students understand that they are building and managing a digital identity just as "in real life" (IRL), and that they should engage with classmates on a discussion board positively and ethically. There are a ton of resources out there regarding digital citizenship that can be woven into any curriculum. Choose the ones that make the most sense to integrate into your learning management system.
Constant Care and Feeding
Producing and maintaining the consistency of productive online conversations is hard for online doctoral candidates, let alone the K-12 world. Set the expectations—with student input if possible—and stick to them as a class. Once you have established a culture for your LMS and online classroom that includes good habits for productive online conversations, class discussion will thrive.
Let us know how you promote classroom discussions through your LMS! Tell us on Twitter @Schoology