Building Engaging Discussions in Your Online Course

Donna Simiele Headshot

Donna Simiele -NCCC eLearning

Discussions can promote community, collaboration, social interaction and conceptualization. There are many benefits to online discussion; 24/7 interaction, time to think before responding, allowing all students the chance to participate and a higher level of engagement. In addition, online discussions can be used as an extension of face-to-face discussions available to on campus students.

The first discussion within an online or hybrid courses should be an icebreaker activity.  This promotes community among the classmates.  Also, this activity introduces the forum to students and gives the instructor an understanding of writing techniques of each student.

Your second discussion question could be based on textbook reading, a video, a photograph or any material presented in the course.  Don’t just ask a “question”, this can end a discussion before it starts.  Promote interaction in the discussion; come up with activities that promote further learning and engagement. Questions throughout the course should be linear and require higher cognitive analysis as the course progresses. Ask controversial questions that will peak interest and foster engagement.

Uses for online discussions (Raleigh)

  • Share Knowledge
  • Reflect on ideas
  • Improve critical thinking

Application ideas for online discussions (Raleigh)

  • Case scenarios. Students can be divided into small groups or work in large groups to respond to cases that help them apply theories and concepts presented in class or in readings.
  • Brainstorming. As a pre-class or post-class activity, students can use the online discussion format to brainstorm ideas on a topic.
  • Role-playing. In small groups, students can each assume roles and develop scenarios around course content.
  • Reaction postings. Students can react to posted readings, assigned readings, or web sites. Also, discussion questions related to the course textbook can provide the basis for discussion.
  • Expand course content. Students may read different articles and post summaries or find appropriate web resources and post links. Students may react to each other’s postings.
  • Extend in-class discussions. It’s frustrating to cut off a really good discussion at the end of class. Online discussions can quickly be established to allow conversations to flourish outside of class time.

Do your questions promote different styles of learning?

  • Students learn by doing (tactile/kinesthetic learners)
  • Some by seeing (visual learners)
  • Some by reading (processing text learners)
  • Some by listening (auditory learners)

Online Discussion questions can be derived from:

  • Textbook readings
  • Literature-Based – find existing, discipline-specific literature to prove or disprove, agree or disagree, or expand upon the concept under discussion.
  • Non-Literature Based – videos, podcasts, surveys, audio files, interactive scavenger hunts, scenarios created by the teacher (Aikin)

Students will engage:

  • If they see that someone has started the discussion.
  • See that someone has responded to their posts.
  • If the instructor has responded to their post or other students post. (I always look for faculty posts).

Ideas on how to get students engaged:

  • Post a message in the announcement board thanking the active students for their informative response and place a summary of high points from the discussion.  Then place a reminder of when the discussion is due.
  • Show students the Navigation pane in Angel so they can see what discussions are active and show numbers of unread posts.

Example Questions:

Appendix (Aikin)

For consistency, the topics of link resolvers and federated search engines have been used in the following sample discussion questions.  Federated search engines allow people to search multiple Web-based databases from one screen and with one search. Link resolvers connect searchers from a citation in a Web-based bibliographic database to links to the corresponding complete document.

Example 1.  Basic Constructivist Question.

How do you think federated searching and link resolvers will impact the work of information professionals and how will it impact searching?

Example 2. Literature-Based Question.

In the article you readon link resolvers and federated searching, the author provides advantages and disadvantages for both. Do you agree or disagree with his assessment of the good and the bad points of these new library technologies?

Example 3. Experiential Question.

In the article you read on link resolvers and federated searching, the author provides various advantages and disadvantages for both. Relying on your experience of searching these types of technologies, do you agree or disagree with his assessment of the good and the bad points of these new library technologies?  Why or why not?  Can you think of any other advantages and disadvantages that he did not address in this article?

Example 4. Post building.

Question 1: Identify what is, in your opinion, the most significant advantage to using link resolvers. Explain why you think it is an advantage.

Question 2: Now, compare the advantage you identified with some of the advantages your classmates identified. Reflect on whether your opinion about the most significant advantage has changed.
Question 3: Do not post until you have read the article on link resolvers. Focus on the author’s arguments against link resolvers. Show how his arguments contrast the advantages you or a classmate identified.

Example 5. An evaluative/reflective question.

You have shared some engaging thoughts so far on the advantages and disadvantages of link resolvers. Now, take one minute to think about what we have discussed so far about them, and share your thoughts with the class. For example, what concerns you about this technology? What confuses you about it? Is it an exciting technology for libraries, and why or why not? You may post anonymously.

Example 6. Final question with instructions. 

You have shared some engaging thoughts so far on the advantages and disadvantages of link resolvers. Now, take one minute to think about what we have discussed so far about them, and share your thoughts with the class. For example, what concerns you about this technology? What confuses you about it? Is it an exciting technology for libraries, and why or why not? Please respond to only one part of the question until everyone has had a chance to post.

Cited Work

Aikin, Lynn, and Diane Neal. “JOLT – Journal of Online Learning and Teaching.” JOLT – Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Oct. 2012. <http://jolt.merlot.org/vol3no2/akin.htm>.

Raleigh, Donna. “Facilitating Online Discussions, by Donna Raleigh | TTT.” Facilitating Online Discussions, by Donna Raleigh | TTT. N.p., 15 Nov. 2000. Web. 02 Oct. 2012. <http://www.uwsa.edu/ttt/raleigh.htm>.

Conduction effective online discussion (video)

Engaging the Online Student (video)

Other Resources:

Developing Online Learning Communities with Faculty and Students By: Barton K. Pursel, PhD and Crystal Ramsay, PhD in Online Education

Introduction to Crafting Questions for On-line Discussions By: Penn State Learning Design Community Hub

Nine Ways to Improve Class Discussion (Faculty Focus)

Generating and Facilitating Engaging and Effective Online Discussions – University of Oregon and their Teaching Effectiveness Program

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