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 sessionsespecially ones in which
the professor is a participant-leaderoften 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.
David Brown (firstname.lastname@example.org) is vice president and dean of the International
Center for Computer Enhanced Learning at Wake Forest University.