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Facilitating Online Discussions

A well-designed online discussion engages students in an open-ended conversation that promotes deepened understanding of a topic. Design is only part of the process, though. To be truly effective, an online discussion needs to be facilitated by you in a way that encourages conversation and promotes exploration. This section will cover several facilitation strategies and approaches and also provide some general tips on how to effectively facilitate an online discussion, whether as part of a fully online course, a blended course, or a face-to-face course that is web enhanced.

About online discussions

Online discussions differ from face to face discussions in several ways, as noted in the table below.

Discussion

Face to Face

Online

Spontaneous and rapid

Addresses multiple topics

Semi-structured

Detailed and slow paced

Addresses few topics

Heavily structured

In an online discussion, you design and facilitate the discussion while the students learn from each other and craft their own understanding of the topic. The students are responsible for learning the material and teach each other, while you facilitate the process from the side.

Opportunities

  • Promotes deepened understanding of a topic
  • Allows for individual exploration
  • Provides opportunity to hear all student voices

Challenges

  • Establishing and maintaining instructor presence
  • Ensuring the discussion meets learning outcomes
  • Developing a community online

Facilitation strategies

Focus:

Bring the diverging discussion back on track. Allow for individual exploration of a topic, but be sure it is meeting the learning goals you establish.

Example:

Student Post: I read an article that said electronic health records are a way for the government to keep track of citizens. – Suzy

Instructor Response: Hi Suzy, thanks for your input. As you note, there are many opinions on the subject of electronic health records (EHRs). However, right now we’re discussing the implementation of EHRs and the problems faced by administrators and IT staff. Perhaps you could find an article that addresses how an EHR has been successfully implemented?

Connect:

Connect together ideas from across multiple posts, multiple groups, or multiple forums. Make connections to course material. Use the discussions to reinforce key concepts or foreshadow upcoming information.

Example:

Student Post: I think this week’s reading did a good job of outlining the conservative perception of the Affordable Care Act – Bart

Instructor response: Thanks for your input, Bart. How does the conservative argument relate to the liberal one we discussed last week? What do you see as the primary differentiators? Sally wrote that the readings this week presented a biased perspective of the argument. Do you agree with that?

Clarify:

Encourage students to defend their position or explain how they came to a conclusion. Suggest to students that they bring in outside readings to deepen the conversation, but also that they need to be specific about their evidence.

Example:

Student Post: World population is declining based on a number of studies I read – Wally

Instructor Response: Wally, it’s interesting that the studies you read indicated that world population is declining. What studies did you read and where did you find them? Can you please post some of the details about those articles so your classmates can also review them?

Extend:

Use questions to probe for deepened reflection and question assumptions. Encourage students to go beyond the questions and bring in outside readings or experiences.

Example:

Student post: I think the implementation of electronic health records at an institution is the most challenging issue regarding wide-scale adoption. - Bertha

Instructor response: Thanks for your post, Bertha. Can you expand on what you said? What is it about implementation that you think is particularly challenging? Why do you think that is? Do you have experience in implementing an EHR system at your institution? Are there any other experiences you’ve read about that indicate the challenges involved with implementation? Please expand; I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on this.

Summarize:

Summarize the conversation. Provide a meaningful end to the discussion forum that ties the threads together and signals a formal close. These are often called “landscape” posts since they survey the entire landscape of the discussion. An extension of this strategy is to have a student post a summary post.

Example:

Instructor response: Thanks everyone for a lively discussion. It sounds like the consensus was that the positive benefits of electronic health records (EHR) outweigh the negatives, but there were more than a few strong concerns raised by the group. Suzy reminded us to pay close attention to privacy in any internet-based application. Jane also referenced the recent NY Times article regarding patient rights of ownership of EHRs. And finally, Jim brought us back to the main point of the discussion; namely, that while there are significant concerns, they are not insurmountable if there is consensus within the industry.

General tips:

Participate intentionally

Determine your participation strategy and stick to it. It is advisable to log on daily to monitor the discussion and participate occasionally as needed to redirect the conversation or answer specific questions. You may wish to provide significant guidance and modeling early in the semester, and then gradually decrease your presence. Alternatively, you may wish to reserve your substantial involvement for particular times (end of the discussion period, for example) to wrap up and provide feedback.

Too much participation can stymie the students’ discussion; too little can add to the students’ sense of isolation. The level of your presence depends somewhat on the goals for the discussion. If the goal is for students to work collectively to determine an outcome, then you should only monitor the discussion. If the goal is for students to generate multiple scenarios and posit alternatives, then you should be more present to critique the responses.

Choose your tone

In an online discussion forum, you facilitate the conversation through encouragement and support. Your tone should be encouraging and supportive. Avoid criticizing a student’s post or playing devil’s advocate. An inquisitive tone can often help further the conversation.

Deal with unacceptable behavior privately and promptly

Students who are new to online learning may not understand how their tone comes across asynchronously. Without physical presence and the benefit of body language, a student may unknowingly make an inappropriate comment. If this happens, quickly address it through personal communication with the student. Create and share discussion protocols and expectations with students at the beginning of the course.

Carefully review your post before submitting

You should model an effective discussion post when posting to the discussion. Careful attention should be paid to spelling, grammar, and tone. Also, guidelines for posts, including length, should be adhered to. It is suggested that you should first draft the post in a word-processing application (such as MS Word) for easier review, and to ensure a backup is saved.

Extensions

While the facilitation strategies outlined above are sufficient to engage students in conversation, you may consider varying your role or allowing students to take on a leadership role. The extensions indicated below provide some possible ways to enliven or vary the approach to facilitating online discussions.

Role of Discussion Leader Changes Over Time

Provide detailed personal feedback early in the semester when students may feel more uncomfortable communicating in this medium. As the students become more independent and build their community, consider gradually decreasing your role in the discussions to encourage the students to increase their responsibility for the discussion.

Discussion leaders

Consider assigning one student from each group or two students in a whole-class forum to lead the discussion. Provide expectations for facilitation for the discussion leaders and a separate grade. Give specific feedback to the discussion leaders outside of the discussion forum.

Student summations

Consider assigning a student from each group or two students in a whole-class forum to provide the summary of the discussion. Model the summary process in the first week or two of the course and then provide general guidelines for the summation. If the discussion forum is a small-group activity, consider having each group post its summary to a large-group forum.

Guest facilitators

Consider bringing in professionals in the field to participate in a relevant online discussion. Students can draft questions in advance for the guest speaker to address or the guest speaker can help guide the discussion based on questions created by you.

Resources

Brookfield, S.D. and Preskill, S. (1999). Discussion as a Way of Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Collison, G., Elbaum, B., Haavind, S., and Tinker, R. (200). Facilitating Online Learning: Effective Strategies for Moderators. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.

Kanuka, H. and Garrison, D. R. (2004). “Cognitive Presence of Effective Online Learning.” Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 15(2), 30-49.

Hanna, D. E., Gloqacki-Dudka, M., and Conceicao-Runlee, S. (2000). 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Online Groups. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.

Moore, M. (1989). “Three Types of Interaction.” American Journal of Distance Education 3(2), 1-6.

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