Posted by: Ellie Kutz | March 26, 2012

Learning Communities and Online Discussions

Those of us who teach online courses recognize the importance of using discussions to support students’ learning, and many of us use the discussion features of Blackboard or Wikispaces to extend the discussions initiated in our face-to-face courses, to provide time for reflection, and to offer opportunities for those students who are hesitant classroom participants to make meaningful contributions.

But however “digital” our learners are, they aren’t necessarily familiar with the environment created by Blackboard or Wikispaces, nor do they have experience with the class discussion genre as it’s typically created in those spaces. And there are norms for effective participation, whether stated or implied, that don’t allow for apprenticeship and slow integration into the community.

Just as we need to make the processes of working in online course sites explicit, we need to make clear also the purposes of online discussion, especially if it is being added to face-to-face classes.  Adding such discussions can provide occasions for thoughtful reflection, space for all students—including quieter students–to participate, and opportunities for student to build on each others’ knowledge and contributions and to explore each others’ questions.  In web-enhanced courses, online discussions can also generate new understandings to bring back to classroom, and a number of faculty have told me that their classroom discussions become much richer when they follow an online discussion of the topic.

Commonly understood best practices, such as those shared on Stanford University’s teaching and learning site, Tomorrow’s Professor, include the following:

  • Being present in the discussions.  This doesn’t mean being constantly present—students need time and space to build ways of interacting with each other.  But they generally need to see the teacher as interested and involved.
  • Being explicit about expectations.  Again, the knowledge-building online academic discussion is a new genre for many students and they’re likely to need both explicit guidance about how often to participate (such as a weekly post plus two responses to others), and about what that participation might look like.  I find rubrics to be a particularly helpful way of clarifying expectations, and in my own, I address how I want students to engage with the work of the course and with each other, not only participating, but building a shared framework of understanding, making substantial connections with readings, and shaping a dialogue with the ideas of others. But I also want to create a conversation about those expectations and the purposes they serve, and so I invite students to try out my discussion rubric for a week or two and suggest changes to make it more helpful before using it for grading or peer evaluation.
  • Getting feedback from students throughout the semester.  I find SurveyMonkey to be a great tool for this purpose, and I have students use it as well, to generate their own surveys of classmates on various topics.  I also use it at the beginning of a course to learn about students’ participation in and experience with educational technology and other online communities.
  • Using discussion prompts that invite a variety of responses:  questions, discussions, reflections, application of core concepts.  Josh Reid draws his exams from the discussions, further encouraging students to read what other learners in their online community have posted.
  • Using the different tools within Blackboard—threaded discussions, journals, and blogs—for specific sorts of interaction.  Lynnell Thomas showed her use of these tools at a CIT/EdTech forum in the fall and you can see a video of that presentation.  Lynnell also acknowledges the value of lurking—of reading others posts even when you’re not required to respond. Amy Todd lets students post journal responses privately first, and then make them public after a specific date.
  • Sharing the load by having students take responsibility, in teams, for a week’s discussion—asking them to post something that will start off the discussion, to share the responsibility for making sure that everyone’s posts are responded to and built on, and to pull together key points from the week’s discussion, allowing me to add my response after the discussion has gone on for a while.  Even for fully online courses, I’ve been shifting this discussion work to a wiki where groups can more easily collaborate on create topic pages and discussions can be directly connected to those pages.
  • Setting guidelines with students for respectful discussion and offering careful interventions when students are discussing contentions issues (such as the Iraq war in Amani El Jack’s classes).

From each opportunity to share our own strategies as faculty, we keep expanding our own repertoires of possibilities.  But with the focus on knowledge-sharing communities in mind, I’d like to turn, finally, to a bit of research on online discussions that I’ve found useful.

Toward More Effective Knowledge-Building

Jim Hewitt and Earl Woodruff have explored the question of “why threads die” and how to bring coherence to online discussions They’ve found something that might be familiar to many of us–that in threaded discussions, students tend to respond only to an immediate post, not to more global issues raised in discussion.  They are likely to make a single pass, not to see how a discussion has developed over time, and not to recognize when they are going off topic.  They see their goal as participating, rather than contributing to a larger conversation (and Blackboard’s tracking of the number of times students post encourages us to see that as the goal as well).  And they focus on the unread notes that are highlighted in the Blackboard discussion space, so that, if a note hasn’t been posted to a discussion recently, it slips from view.   They suggest explicitly teaching students some new discussion strategies:  asking questions, introducing new ideas, offering rebuttals, offer revisions of an idea that’s gone before.  They also suggest guiding students to work at a meta-level—to synthesize what’s gone before, highlight unresolved issues, and suggest new directions.  And they suggest offering some specific prompts such as:  “the important ideas seem to be” to help students move in this direction.

Hewitt, J. (2005).  Toward an understanding of why threads die in asynchronous computer conferences. The Journal of the Learning Sciences 14 (4), 586-589. JStor

Hewitt, J. and Woodruff, E.  (2010). Bringing coherence to knowledge building discussions. IKIT Summer Institute <>

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