Build Instructor Presence & Student Engagement in Online Discussions

At the OLC Innovate Conference, I attended a presentation that laid out a strategy often used for in-person discussions but retooled for use in online courses. This strategy resonated strongly with me as it addresses questions I often get from instructors I work with in course development. How do I increase student engagement in discussions? How do I increase instructor presence in the course?

The presentation was given by Zora M. Wolfe, Ed.D. (Widener University) and Christopher A. Bogiages, Ph.D. (U. Of South Carolina) and was titled “A Brick-and-Mortar Strategy to Online Discussion Boards”. The strategy derives from the “5 Practices” framework developed initially for in-person mathematics course discussions. The basic structure is broken down into the following 5 steps; anticipate, monitor, select, sequence and connect. In this blog post I cover how these steps can be adapted to an online environment based on the presentation and a brief discussion I had with the presenters.

Proper planning and setting realistic deadlines for student posts, replies and follow-ups is an important part of this process. The instructor will not be present to monitor discussions synchronously, as you would in a face-to-face class. You’ll want to allow time for thoughtful responses and self-reflections (if you require them).

Anticipate

In this first step, build the requirements and instructions for the discussion. Present clear instructions about expectations for student responses. Use language and keywords that you expect students to use. Prompt their thinking. Anticipate how students may respond to questions. This will help clarify your instructions to guide student thinking. A bonus here is that getting students to use anticipated language and keywords will allow you to more quickly find (control-f) responses that you can use for your follow up engagement.

In a larger class, it can be beneficial to break students into discussion groups as you would in an in-person course.

Monitor

As the discussion opens and unfolds, the instructor will periodically monitor student responses. Pay attention to how students are thinking about the subject. Consider stepping in with a comment if the discussion needs guidance (as you would in a face-to-face discussion). What should be emphasized? Are there misconceptions that can be used as a learning opportunity? Are students connecting their thinking to previous discussions?

Select

In this step, the instructor will choose student posts as examples to emphasize the learning outcomes. The responses selected will depend on the pedagogy used. Did a student briefly hit all the points? Has anyone gone in-depth on a point you want to emphasize? Did a student connect concepts in a creative way, or build on previous knowledge? The instructor may discover new ideas that hadn’t been anticipated.

For a discussion that has been broken into groups, consider having each group write a summary of their conclusions. This is another strategy used in face-to-face discussions that will help an instructor manage a course with a larger enrollment.

Sequence

In these last two steps the instructor will develop a summary of the discussion and any follow up activities they will have students participate in. Take the selections made in the previous step and sequence them in a way that will emphasize the subject matter and where you want to guide student thinking.

Connect

In this final step, present your summary to the students. Use this opportunity to connect student responses with the learning objectives, course material or previous discussions and content. Where does this discussion fit in with the overall course goals? How might it shape their thinking for upcoming material and learning objectives? The main goal here is that the instructor is using the students own words and thoughts to guide learning.

The strength of this discussion summary is that the instructor is engaging with the ideas presented by students and using them to build knowledge towards meeting weekly outcomes and course goals. This will also build motivation as students begin to realize that they will be recognized for thoughtful responses.

You can record your summary as a video to further increase instructor presence or you can simply add the summary as a page in the course. Another option is to follow up with personal self-reflection assignment. Post your discussion summary as an introduction to the self-reflection to help prompt their thinking

While this strategy requires more ‘maintenance’ by the instructor, it can help move student and instructor engagement to a central position in the learning process.

Bright red and orange maple leaves against a blue skyResearch supports the value of online student-to-student interaction and building community among learners. Week 1 intro discussions—Let’s get acquainted. Tell us about yourself!—are a staple of interaction among students in online and hybrid courses. Can a Week 1 intro discussion that introduces students to one another also actively engage them in learning course content while building community with peers?

Karen Holmberg, Assoc. Prof. of Creative Writing, uses an “Interview Haiku” exercise in her hybrid WR 241 Introduction to Poetry Writing course that combines students introducing themselves and introducing peers while practicing the popular three-line poetry form.

After being introduced to haiku, syllable counting and marking stresses in the first week, Prof. Holmberg’s students interview partners during an in-class session. (In a fully online course, this step could be done through other means, for instance, in a Google doc or by text or email.) For these intro interviews, she provides a set of six questions such as “Describe your preferred environment: urban, woodland, seaside, desert, etc.?” and “What is your favorite animal and why?”

Text showing portions of interview questionsFollowing the interviews, students write haikus to introduce their interview partners to the class as well as haikus to introduce themselves. Imagine the challenge of introducing someone else, or yourself, in three brief lines!

Each student posts these two intro haikus in an online discussion. Then each student replies to another student by copying and pasting the other student’s two haikus in the reply box and counting and marking the syllables and noting the stressed syllables in the haiku. The instructor can follow up with her students by offering timely feedback individually and collectively through the discussion forum, through comments in the grade book, and in subsequent in-class discussions.

Looking for ideas and effective practices for online discussions that enable learners to share, comprehend, critique and construct knowledge?  Try The Art and Science of Successful Online Discussions.

Do you have an intro discussion assignment that engages learners in course content?

References:

Al-Shalchi, O. N. (2009). The effectiveness and development of online discussions. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 5(1). Retrieved from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol5no1/al-shalchi_0309.htm

Palenque, S.M., & DeCosta, M. (2014, August 11). The art and science of successful online discussions. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/art-science-successful-online-discussions/

Rubin, B., & Fernandes, R. (2013). Measuring the community in online classes. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 17(3), 115—136. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1018304.pdf

In the classroom we often discuss readings and other sources of information. Because students are often accustomed to digital communications in which sources are rarely cited, they can benefit from guidance concerning your expectations regarding citation. The instructor for TCE 512, Psychology of the Adolescent, worked with Ecampus to create an infographic through which she provides such guidance.

This infographic is licensed under a Creative Commons license, so you can feel free to download and post it in your own courses. Also, remember that we enjoy collaborating with Ecampus instructors to create innovative resources, so if you have any interesting ideas we would love to work with you!

Citations in Discussions Infographic

There are many ways to get engaging discussions started in a discussion board, but my favorite is to have students make something to share with their classmates as discussion starters. The tools students can use to create many types of presentations have become incredibly powerful and easy to use. These tools range from the more traditional presentation tools such as Prezi and Google Presentations (part of Google Drive) to the more creative such as slideshows in Vuvox or Animoto, interactive digital posters such as Pinterest or Padlet, animated cartoons with Go!Animate, or digital multimedia timelines with myHistro. Having students create things to share with classmates leverages the “write” part of the read/write web (also called web 2.0) to turn students into producers of content rather than consumers of content. This also creates a greater sense of student ownership of their own learning, especially when they are free to select the tool with which to create their discussion starter. Best of all, it reduces the likelihood that after half of the class has posted their thoughts in the forum everyone else struggles to come up with something new to say—usually ending up saying exactly the same thing with different paraphrasing. The accessibility of Web 2.0 tools varies. Giving students a choice of tools to use is a recommended approach; instructors seeking to create content for online courses should consult with Ecampus for recommendations about accessible tools.

Here is an example of what a typical set of assignment instructions might say:
Part 1: Create a presentation addressing your assigned topic using Prezi, Google Presentation, or Vuvox.
Part 2: Post a link to your presentation in the discussion board by clicking “Create Thread”. (Due Wednesday of week 1)
Part 3: Read at least 5 classmates’ presentations and give in-depth responses. Respond to classmates’ presentations which have the fewest responses. (Due Friday of week 1)
Part 4: Read the responses you received from your classmates and reply to each one. (Due Saturday of Week 1)

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