The Role you Play in Online Discussions

The best discussions are most likely to occur face-to-face among students and faculty in small classes. Regrettably, face-to-face time is often too limited or classes are too large. In these circumstances, online discussions can be an effective way to personalize interaction and extend classroom activities.

Whether teaching face-to-face or at a distance, building community is a key ingredient for successful teaching and learning. In small classes among residential students, community can be built face-to-face. In classes that are entirely online, asynchronous discussions and chat sessions—especially ones in which the professor is a participant-leader—often become central to the learning experience. I personally prefer asynchronous discussions because they accommodate varied time schedules, allow more people to participate, encourage discussants to "think before they speak," and are monitored more conveniently. Especially in distance courses, small group discussion and electronic office hours usually receive high marks from student participants.

Heidi Schweizer, a faculty member at Marquette University and the author of Designing and Teaching an Online Course (Allyn & Bacon), urges that the use of discussion is much more likely to be productive if the professor has a clear idea of his or her own role. Is that role to be community leader, discussion leader, manager or technical consultant, information resource person, or a combination of all five roles? The community leader creates a friendly environment, cheers strong contributions, and nudges reluctant contributors. The discussion leader poses questions, moves toward ever higher thinking skills, encourages students to question each other, and provides mini-summaries. The manager enforces rules and guidelines, provides meaningful and frequent feedback, monitors student involvement, and keeps the workspace "clutter" free. The technical consultant coaches on how to use computer software, establishes a frequently-asked-question file, and connects students with appropriate help desks. The information provider joins the conversation as a substantive participant, refers students to key resources, and often posts new material at the site.

One quickly notes that the professorial roles in online discussions are very much the same as in face-to-face discussions. Whatever role is chosen by the professor, here are a few tips for improving the impact of discussions:

  • Use online discussions to build a community. Maintain an informal tone.
  • Relate online discussions to what is happening in class. Refer in class to issues raised in the discussion. Or, when many students still want to ask a question, extend the conversation online.
  • Structure the discussion topic; focus it around a problem to be solved. Consider charging a specific student to propose a solution, and expect other students (perhaps a subgroup of the entire class) to refine the idea.
  • Define roles for various discussants. Roles might be "original proposer," "idea extender," "constructive critic," "responder to critic," or "consolidator."
  • Clarify the pay off for participation in the discussion, either by enhancing one's grade or by enhancing one's understanding of material that is likely to be on a graded exam.
  • Outlaw "just opinions." Insist that points be backed by references to readings, other discussants, or other source materials.
  • Keep a discussion board as a "for fun" place where students can post anything they wish as a means of letting other students know them better.

Happy discussing!

About the Author

David Brown (brown@wfu.edu) is vice president and dean of the International Center for Computer Enhanced Learning at Wake Forest University.

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