How do you Encourage Effective On-Line Student Discussion?

Presented by Del Harnish
Friday, October 26, 2001

Teacher's Role
Why would you use on-line discussions?
How do you get students to discuss?
How do you choose the appropriate technology for discussions?
Other Issues
Other People Who Can Help

Teacher's Role

In on-line discussions, you are allowing students the opportunity to develop:

  • critical thinking
  • negotiation
  • diversity in thought
  • the ability to positively handle challenging contributions from people who think differently
  • communication skills.

Why would you use on-line discussion?

Learning Diversity.  Different people like to contribute in different ways. Technology provides one more method for people to contribute. On-line discussions will not be for everyone, but they will provide an outlet for different people. You will find that people who do not contribute in class will contribute on-line.

Contact.  The on-line discussions can increase contact with the professor in a large class, and with each other. The on-line system can be used to communicate basic information (such as exam times and rooms, or assessment information) which then frees the professor’s time for different kinds of interactions, such as high level discussions.

Thinking.  It can create an environment that promotes thinking. In large classes it provides a rare OPPORTUNITY to practice communicating and hearing other people’s ideas. This is a skill, which develops over the course, based on practice, and opportunities to see the different ways their peers communicate.

Collaboration.  It provides another opportunity for students to collaborate. Especially when students are working in groups (such as in Problem Based Learning - PBL), groups can benefit from the discussions of other small groups.

Interdisciplinary.  McMaster has a unique system that allows students to look at discussions that are going on in different courses. This allows students to see what is happening in other courses, bring in concepts and courses from other courses.  Some even use it as a method to select their next year’s schedule.

  • About 70% of students browsed other courses.
  • At McMaster, students read discussions from courses they are not attending (about once per week).
  • Students posted messages to a course they were not taking about once per month.

When students asked, "Why are they looking at our stuff?, the answer given was that "they are learning from you."

How do you get students to discuss?

Good Practice.  Many of the issues for establishing good ‘on-line’ discussions are the same as those for establishing good ‘in-person’ discussions. These include things like: establishing a supportive environment, developing trust, establishing good ground rules.

Time.  Use caution when you add things to your course. There is a tendency to just add things, such as an on-line discussion that you would like students to take part in... Students have a limited time, if you add things to your course, you need to provide students with the time to do them! This may mean taking something else out of your course. Think carefully about what you really want students to learn.

Triggers.  Use triggers to invite students to discuss. Examples were shown such as:

  • A short letter from a Nobel Prize winner saying that acquiring knowledge is not enough, reflection is required.
  • A joke sent, e.g. Why did the chicken cross the road?
  • A short scenario describing a true situation that makes people stop and think

Face-to-Face.  Del finds that on-line discussions work better for him if there is also some face-to-face contact. Students have more investment if they know each other.

Participation.  Del has tried on-line discussion both with and without marks for participation. He found that without marks, about 80% of the students participated in some fashion. There were a few more when participation was worth a mark, but the difference was not significant.

Moderating the Discussion.  In general Del tries not to moderate the discussion as an official Moderator. His feeling is that moderators of on-line discussions always view text with their own personal bias, that may stifle some contributions.

Preparation of Students.  Instead of being an official moderator, Del spends time in class talking about the skills of communicating, the purpose of discussion, and the meaning of work space. He also models the interaction that he would like to see.

Student Moderation.  Generally, he finds that the students will moderate their own discussions when given the opportunity. Participants mentioned studies that show "Flaming" is less likely to occur on a site set up for a specific purpose (such as a course) than it is in other forums. Cyber-shunning (everyone agreeing to ignore someone) is one method of peer moderation. If students do not self-moderate, Del uses a soft approach, such as reminding them about working space, or taking the discussion in a new direction by using a quote.

Formal Complaints.  Del does provide an opportunity for students to place formal complaints (in ~ 6 years, only 1 formal complaint has been placed). Then the offending messages were removed, and the two students were warned. The offending behaviour was not repeated on-line.

Organizing Discussion Threads.  Let students organize the space - do not organize the discussions for them. Make sure that you choose a technology tool that allows them to follow the ‘thread’ of a conversation if more than one topic is being pursued (ex. the ability to created different folders, or the ability to see the title of a posting). You could ask them what topics they would like to have if the folders need to be set up by the teacher.

Priming-the-Pump.  When conversations begin to die down, Del does not usually try to start them up again. His feeling is that the conversation has ended because people are no longer interested in pursuing the thread at the moment.

Off-Topic Discussions.  Let students talk about topics other than the class content. You may set up different folders on different topics. This encourages the students to get on-line, and they may browse or contribute to other discussions as a result. It also helps create an environment that encourages discussion and a sense of community that is lacking in very large courses and programs.

Anonymous Contributions.  Students are given the opportunity to contribute anonymously, although this is rarely done. Sometimes, Del will contribute anonymously. He finds that without the names attached, it is impossible to tell the difference between faculty, TA and student contributions to a discussion.

Guiding or Correcting.  As a teacher, never intentionally mislead or guide students down the wrong path in a discussion. If there are incorrect statements made in an on-line discussion, you can try to ask questions about the items to encourage people to re-examine them.

Student’s Only Folder.  On LearnLink, you can provide students with a folder that the teacher and TA’s do not have access to. This provides students with a private space that allows them to communicate and provides a sense of control and autonomy.

Peer Mentors.  Del has had students from previous years come back and be part of the on-line discussions. Their experience and insight has added to the discussions of the new students, they can also act as models for the new students.

How do you choose the appropriate technology for discussions?

This depends on what you want to DO!

There are many different types of technology, with different advantages and disadvantages.

First, think carefully:

  • What pedagological approach would you like to take?
  • What would you like to do?
  • What would you like your students to do?

In a comparison of three technologies used by Computer Sciences students, the preference was:

  1. Homemade Web Page.
  2. BlackBoard
  3. WebCT

WebCT was voted last by the students, however, WebCT at the moment is much less expensive (so more universities are able to support it), and many text books have information that can be directly added to WebCT.  Web CT has a good system to provide information in a presentation format, and has some limited communication aspects.

LearnLink/First Class has very good communication aspects, but more limited presentation ability. One other positive aspect is that it provides teachers with the opportunity to supervise TA’s (because you can see who has logged on, and what they have done).

E-mail Lists.  In general, people seem to have trouble generating good discussions using e-mail lists. They are hard to organize, they take time for people to sign-on. There is no "environment" (you can’t see other folders, you have no access to other discussions or other courses) and messages are usually mixed in with other messages, so they can be missed or skipped more easily. The participant’s name is not always associated with the content (ex. if they are using a hotmail account, their name is not used), which decreases ownership.

Changing Systems.  Never change systems part way through a course, even if it is to a better method. This causes much greater confusion for the students.

Other Issues

Class Size.  Should you use discussions if there are only small numbers?  Del has used them in class sizes from 6 - 600, and found they work well. In a small graduate class, Del encouraged students to post to the group, and read all messages before attending the class. Then to summarize the experience of the in-class discussion to the group after the meeting. He found that this resulted in better, higher level discussions both inside and outside of class.

Collaboration /Competition Issues.  There can be a pull between the competitive urge to have the best mark (and so the urge to keep information to yourself .... no one else should know what you know) and the collaboration - to help other students learn. Del has made collaboration (demonstrating how you help other students) a part of his participation mark in some classes.

Confidentiality.  In some courses students need to speak about issues that should be confidential. For example, in clinical courses students need to discuss the patients they are working with. On Learnlink, a teacher has the choice to set up a folder so that all students can view the discussion, or so that only a specific set of people can access the file to read the discussions. The status of a folder can be changed. As a result, if the discussion of a confidential matter develops, the teacher can change the folder to limit access.

Volume of Communications.  In large classes, the sheer volume of messages is too large to handle. Students are told to pick and choose the conversations that they would like to be part of - just as you would in a classroom or a hallway. The professor cannot read everything - they will also have to pick and choose the discussions they take part in. The entire series can be reviewed at the end of the course for trends.

Other People who can Help

Ruta Valitis (School of Nursing)

Ruta has experience with on-line discussions, and is willing to talk to people about how she approaches things.  You can also see some of her LearnLink discussions:

Nursing 3VV2 - under "Old Courses" is a course where discussions worked well.

Nursing HS 30B - is a course that is on-going, but where discussions are not working as well.

Students say that courses that are completely on-line are a lot more work than they expected, and that it requires deep, thoughtful participation.