Synopsis from Self-Review
While both contribute to learning, an online interaction is much different than in-person discussion. Productive and inclusive online discussions do not spontaneously develop, but require careful planning and continual nurture. Select the strategy and tools that will best serve your course learning outcomes and goals for student interaction.
How to Put Into Practice
Fostering meaningful interactions among students through online discussions involves a number of design considerations outlined below. These considerations will also be inflected by the proportion of synchronous versus asynchronous interaction you are implementing in your course (See Recommendation 3.5: Balancing Interaction for details).
Begin by reviewing core practices that enhance both synchronous and asynchronous online discussions. This is followed by an overview of strategies and resources specific to asynchronous and synchronous formats.
Practices for Fostering Productive Discussions
Build the foundation for an inclusive community:
- Explicitly say at the beginning of a conversation that everyone’s ideas are welcome and that the purpose of the discussion is to explore together in a supportive way. Use regular practices of community-building to sustain such an environment (see Recommendation 4.1: Community & Presence).
- Provide or co-create with students a set of guidelines for respectful and inclusive communication. Refer to these guidelines throughout the semester. (See Recommendation 4.2: Inclusive Communication)
- Be transparent about how discussion participation is evaluated (if the course includes a participation grade). Explain how students will receive feedback on their participation.
- Review a University of New South Wales resource on assessing participation in a transparent and equitable way with sample rubrics and real-life case studies from the classroom.
Articulate the learning objectives:
- Communicate what students will learn to do by participating in a given forum. For example, if your objectives include higher order activities such as analyzing and connecting, use this language in discussion activity instructions and your feedback.
- Identify the type of discussion you plan to help you narrow down the learning objectives. This framework developed by Judith Buettcher breaks down online discussions into four primary types:
- Sequence learning activities and outcomes to build on one another. For example, if the outcome is to analyze a topic or artifact, students first need a solid foundation in being able to describe that topic or artifact.
Select interaction structures
- Select (and combine) structures to foster different types of interaction and learning. For example, a think-pair-share or other small group interaction structure can be used to jumpstart a large group forum in a synchronous meeting. In an asynchronous forum, this small- to large-group progression can be captured by assigning a small group to create initial posts that the rest of the class then analyzes and extends.
- Use discussion roles or other structures (such as a jigsaw structure) to structure cooperative small group interactions that ensure each person contributes something distinct.
- Specify the deliverable small groups should generate by the end of an activity.
Reinforce community through a sense of shared purpose
- Affirm and encourage student comments that connect with other student comments. (E.g., “I especially like the way you acknowledged and built on Greg’s comment.”)
- Have students reflect on something they learned from someone else’s post or contribution.
Asynchronous Interaction Strategies
Asynchronous discussion tools allow students to post messages organized by topic or prompt into a “thread”—an initial post followed by the responses to it posted by others. Asynchronous forums reduce a range of technical and scheduling challenges (e.g., internet connectivity, time zones, accessibility for students based in China). The Discussion tool in Canvas is recommended for most courses. It can also be beneficial to divide students into groups, each with their own group discussion board in Canvas. Piazza can be useful for formula-heavy or other STEM courses and to allow for anonymous questions. Piazza also facilitates students responding to one another’s questions.
The L&S Instructional Design Center advises framing interactions as collaborative conversations, in which the purpose is to build knowledge collectively. The following strategies fit this approach to discussion as creating community:
- To promote students’ interactions with one another, comment on no more than ~20% of posts. (Aaron Johnson’s Excellent Online Teaching)
- Use alternatives to the commonplace model of discussion forum assignments which involve quantifying students’ participation—“make one original post and respond to two other students’ posts.” For instance:
- Model how to add value to forums by creating high-quality synthesis comments. Assign a designated student to each week or forum topic to connect classmates’ points to one another in a synthesis post.
- Assign a small group to seed a forum conversation by making a few original posts. Then have the rest of the class expand and elaborate on that foundation to push the analysis forward. (Adapted from a resource by University of Michigan.)
- Frame interactions as interviews where students ask delving questions about each others’ posts in writing, a phone call, or video chat. Then each student reports on their interview(s) and explains how the give-and-take pushed the analysis forward beyond the original comment. (Aaron Johnson, Excellent Online Teaching)
Technical and pedagogical resources for asynchronous interactions
Synchronous Interaction Strategies
Synchronous interactions can be held in real-time using Zoom in Canvas. While synchronous online interactions can feel very similar to face-to-face discussions, consider the affordances of the virtual space when planning how you will facilitate and structure them. For example:
- Invite both verbal and written contributions (e.g., the chat tool in a web conferencing platform, or writing on a virtual whiteboard). If it’s hard to monitor a chat while facilitating, ask students to help.
- Consider structures that can be a bit intimidating in a face-to-face class but less so virtually. One prime candidate is the fishbowl discussion, in which a small group discusses a topic while the rest of the class observes and then uses as the basis for a full-class discussion.
- Use Google Docs or file sharing options to circulate agendas, worksheets, or other documents to students to anchor their individual in-class activities or collaborative interactions in breakout groups.
- Use the capacity to create breakout groups (small groups within a web conference session) in order to facilitate interaction.
- Use polling tools in the web conferencing platform to take the pulse of the class on topics or to do quick knowledge checks after a round of interactions.
- Invite students to share links, media, and images in the chat to demonstrate connections they are making to the topic.
- Rotate the role of notetaker; have students take turns adding to a Google Doc or other collaborative document that captures notes and insights from each class meeting or breakout group. (A notetaking routine can be a good alternative to recording sessions for students who are unable to attend.)
Technical resources for synchronous interactions
- Zoom in Canvas (Learn@UW): An introduction to using Zoom as the web conferencing platform within a Canvas course, with links to support resources and training.
- A video tour of Zoom in Canvas: This video walks through questions such as: How do I turn on Zoom in my Canvas course?; What is my “personal room”?; How do I create class sessions and what do the setting options actually mean?
- If you are new to Zoom or are using it outside of Canvas, start with UW-Madison Zoom: Getting Started.
- Explore whiteboard, annotation, and polling tools within web conferencing platforms:
These instructional resources contain detailed explanations and example videos for common active learning approaches to build student-to-student interaction to facilitate in the classroom and adapt to the online learning environment.
- Basic Approaches for Active learning in the Classroom (FishBowl Discussions, Minute Paper/Muddiest Point, Small-Group Discussions, Student-Defined Questions, and Think/Pair/Share.
- Active Learning in Online Courses (Case Studies, Minute Paper/Muddiest Point, FishBowl, Pro and Con Grid, Small-Group Discussions, and Think/Pair/Share)
- Active Learning in Large Courses (Background Knowledge Probe, Defining Features Matrix, Minute Paper/Muddiest Point, Pro and Con Grid, Student-Defined Questions)