Thursday, April 26, 2012

6 Keys to Fostering Quality Online Discussions

If there is one thing I know about fostering quality online discussions with students, it is that thinking about having them won't make them happen. Creating an online discussion that is more than just functional has been a quest of mine for several years now. I started four years ago with a high school video production course. Every year since then I have worked to develop the quality of the discussions, and I have been willing to shift platforms to find exactly what I want.

 Fostering a continuous, quality online discussion requires these six key ingredients:
  • Relevance
  • Teacher involvement
  • Student involvement
  • Schedule
  • Expectations
  • Commitment & Patience


The most important part of an online discussion is holding a discussion on something that is both relevant to the course and relevant to the students. Teachers should avoid creating online discussions just for the sake of doing it. Why hold a discussion online if it could be completed in five minutes in a classroom? Students are much more interested in participating when they are interested in the topic and there can be a lot to say about it.

Teacher Involvement

Fostering quality discussion also means modeling quality discussion. While trying to create an online forum for most of my classes, I find that I can burn out quickly in trying to be part of every discussion. Instead, I find a balance that sustains the conversation and sustains my participation. I do this by trying to read everything (Edmodo makes this really easy) and by only replying when the conversation needs a boost or when there is a direct question I should reply to. Three things to remember:
  1. Don't get in the way.
  2. Ask good questions to foster more thoughts and discussion.
  3. Respond as needed, focusing on student questions, misguided responses, and items of interest.

Student Involvement

Students are often only asked to be involved in the discussion through posting responses to the teacher's questions. To enrich students' participation, the teacher can hand over the reigns of developing online discussion to the students. Ask all students to develop questions, pick out five favorites, then let students decide on the top ideas each week. This can be done through online polling, response systems, etc. The teacher can also have a student or a group of students responsible for moderating a discussion. This technique is particularly effective after students have had some experience with online discussions, and is great to experiment with later in the year or in courses that are offered at different levels (i.e. Web Design 1, Web Design 2, etc.)


If both teacher and students are new to online discussion, they will find it is like flexing a new muscle. Creating a schedule of discussions and keeping to it can make a huge difference in the quality of the discussions. I highly recommend requiring participation be complete within one week. Also, try to keep to a schedule that includes posting a new topic each week. Getting it down to a habit will keep the students coming back!


Establish clear expectations in the beginning. If the discussion is not required, some students who may actually love getting involved could end up never logging in. Have a clear set of guidelines that indicates if participation is graded, how it is graded, and what is considered participation.
Things to consider are:
  • How students initially respond
  • How they respond to the ongoing conversation
  • How they use the Internet to find resources, post links and even videos. 
I grade each weekly discussion on a ten point scale. I give up to eight points for student initial responses to the topic of the week, and up to two additional points for how a student engages with classmates in further discussion. Teachers should experiment to find what works best for their class.

Commitment and Patience

Have a clear commitment to fostering quality online discussions. Allow for the patience to struggle, fall down, and most importantly, get back up. Each time this happens it will be a valuable lesson to carry forward. It took me two years of discussions with the same course content before I felt confident enough to expanded to all of my courses. Everyone takes a different path. Those who are committed to online discussion as a tool for improving learning AND have the patience to try different things will have the most success.

Choosing a Platform
There are several platforms that people use for online discussions. I am currently an avid user of Edmodo. In the past, I have tried Google Groups as well as Yahoo Groups. I also know other teachers who dedicate space on their websites through Moodle or a wiki, such as Wikispaces, to hold online discussions with students. These are just a few.

Today I have three different discussion groups going with three different courses I teach and they continue to improve and expand. Just last week I had a student feed a tweet into our discussion by using our class hashtag (a commonly used technique among those who use Twitter.) As my experience with social media expands and the boundaries breakdown, the future of online discussion becomes brighter and the possibilities become endless.

1 comment:

  1. I have found that students work hard to contribute to online Discussion forums when the expectations are set out clearly as part of a course. This way the discussion remains professional, and people typically do the reading before posting and/or commenting on other posts. I have enjoyed Blackboard because I can see a list of parent points and responses; I believe Moodle works that way as well. I like being able to view that list, because I know that I have seen everything. I do not get the same kind of list on edmodo, so the Discussion does not feel as rich to me - I jump from response for one week, to a response on another. Then I wonder if I did it correctly or not. However, I love edmodo in general, and prefer its overall look and capability for younger students, and perhaps for adults as well.


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