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.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Web is My Website

I started my first website for teaching when I got my second job as a teacher. It was 1999 and I had just started in Massachusetts as a middle school math teacher. I wanted to post my homework, and so I did. Within two years I had several teachers joining me (somehow it still lives!)

Over the years, my use of a single home-base website has had its ups and downs. There have always been some teachers that I look up to who create and maintain immaculate websites. Mine, on the other hand, has always tended to be a mess of links to documents and maybe a calendar or two. I recently added my Twitter feed. While I still have a website, and it still has important documents, I don't know that it serves a major purpose in my suite of online classroom tools anymore. Instead I find that I am finding several different tools to fill several different needs.

Edmodo (link): Currently I use the site as a homebase of sorts. While it does not provide me with a face for the public, it does give me a great online launching spot for all of my classes. I post assignments, related documents, classroom discussions and much more. My online presence doesn't stop there.

Google Docs (link): I also use Google Docs. I now create all my new assignments in Google Docs. I am slowly uploading and converting all of my old assignments. From Google Docs, I can share whatever I want and I can grant editing access to various people, students included. The collaboration and interactivity are what make this tool so enticing. I also use it for the free storage. The tool continues to grow and is now getting integrated into other websites. See Edmodo's latest integration

SchoolTube (link): All of my video students have accounts with and all of the videos they upload fall under the umbrella of our school channel on that site. It is one more place for students to post and for me to observe, comment on, and enjoy the growth of my students. I moderate everything they post. If I don't like something, I block it, have a discussion with the student, and have them resubmit the video based on the outcome of that discussion.

Twitter (link): Twitter is allowing me to interact with professionals from all over the globe. I can share thoughts with people who have similar interests in education and in technology. It is an amazing platform that is only becoming more powerful. Two years ago I was ready to dismiss it as a fad, yet it is not. I strongly encourage others to check into Twitter. I have integrated my Tweets into Edmodo so students can see tweets relevant to our discussions. I keep it professional, and it is not always on topic for students, but it is a great way for them to see me as a professional.

Blogger (link): This blog is a place where I can voice my thoughts and people can read or not. This is a natural tool to transition technology into the classroom. Students can create blogs, write stories, summarize learning, share insights, and comment on other blogs. Whether it is Blogger, Edublog,  Wordpress or some other platform, the interactivity of these writing spaces is raising the education bar. Students are reading, sorting, and developing critical thinking skills when the tools are applied properly.

CONCLUSION: I have accounts on dozens of websites for various purposes. Many are educational, some can be educational if I wish, and others are just for personal or entertainment purposes. What has been lost in the abundance of quality options, is my classroom website. I am not ready to abandon it just yet. There are still a few things that work about it, and when a parent wants easy access to my expectations and grading policies, all the information is right there. However, reality says it is only a matter of time until I abandon it for something better and more fully featured, something that makes me say "That's what I've been looking for!!" Until then, the web is my website.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Edmodo for Professional Development

Last fall I ran a workshop on Google Apps. The workshop lasted for six weeks and the participants learned several new ways to take advantage of Google Docs and other related apps. What I learned was how to use Edmodo as a delivery platform for professional development. As a tool, Edmodo was not quite perfect, but it was wonderfully easy to use and it was a great way to introduce other teachers to the platform.

Currently, I am teaching an eight week course entitled The 21st Century Classroom. Not only am I using Edmodo as the delivery platform, I am also teaching others how to use Edmodo as one of their many tools for creating a 21st Century Classroom.

How I use Edmodo for Professional Develoment
To manage the online classroom for professional development through Edmodo, I begin by creating an Edmodo group and then within that group I create one 'small group' for each week of the course.
How to create small groups in Edmodo

Using the small group feature makes managing the course much easier. Here is the process I use:
  • I create a small group for each week of the course (Week 1, Week 2, etc.) 
  • Then, at the beginning of each new week I add the entire class into that week's small group
  • Finally, I begin the new weekly discussion within the small group, allowing each weekly discussion to be less cluttered and appear more focused.
Once the groups are all set, I then use the Google Docs feature of the Edmodo library (video tutorial) to open access to all of the Google Docs I use for professional development. I can add these to specific library folders and share the folders with the PD group. Documents I use include:
  • Course Syllabus
  • Course Resources
  • Weekly documents to describe the goals, readings, and assignments for the week
Once I have Edmodo setup and Google Docs integrated, I am ready to roll. I use the group home page on Edmodo for course introductions, to feed in certain Twitter hashtags, and to post occasional important Edmodo tips.

Things are working well so far. I am even considering changing my high school discussions over to a similar format. At the end of each term I can archive individual small groups, creating a fresh set of small groups for the new term.

This experiment is ongoing. I will come back and update this post when I have some results and reflections that are worth sharing. I would also appreciate your ideas below on how to better utilize Edmodo for delivering professional development. Please email me or leave a comment.