Facilitating Online Discussions in Blended and Remote Courses – Why Does It Matter?

By Beata Anderson, Blended Learning Intern, Center for Teaching and Learning

Laptop on tableDiscussion between students and faculty plays an important role in teaching and learning. Consistent interaction helps students improve their education outcomes and helps educators support the learning and success of all their students. “Education researchers and curriculum designers attach important roles to learning through discussions in higher education, because discussions enable students to actively participate in the process of knowledge construction through communication” (Han & Ellis, 2019).

The COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, has changed the concept of face-to-face interaction and discussion. More and more on-campus courses have some blended learning structure integrated. To prepare for the future of education, it is important to facilitate discussions in online and blended courses so they can be delivered effectively and reduce problems.

One of the challenges with discussions in remote and blended learning is that they are more difficult to navigate than in-class discussions because learners are more responsible for managing their time and participating in discussions. Learners must be adept at checking schedules, setting reminders for themselves, and remembering deadlines. Furthermore, they must also hold themselves more accountable than they would in a traditional class and mitigate distractions. This is especially important to ensure active engagement, which is critical in both remote and blended courses. Facilitators must create understandable, effective communications that promote engagement on the discussion board and remind students of expectations surrounding participation.

For example, the instructor must present clearly documented expectations for discussion participation and provide carefully structured discussion prompts. This can be difficult, but when done well it can lead to outcomes at least to face-to-face discussions. “It is widely reported that online discussions play an integral role in facilitating student’s learning, as well as fostering dialogue, critical thinking and reflective inquiry” (Maher & DeCosta, 2014).

Practices for facilitating successful online discussion include making sure all of the students are heard. When a student is not participating, it is important to reach out to them. Additionally, replying to selected posts and/or bringing up online discussion content in class can be important so students feel heard, will stay engaged, and can see how the discussions are integrated with other learning activities and content in the course. Consistent, timely feedback helps students understand and further analyze discussed topics.

Another potential challenge with online and blended discussions that educators must be aware of is how to keep things civil and to promote constructive, collegial dialogue. Discussions can get heated between students, and in an online environment some students may feel more empowered to voice a strong opinion and refute others. Lisa Dadio, a graduate program coordinator at the University of New Haven, provides online students a tip sheet that concludes, “Above all else, think before you post. If you wouldn’t say something to a classmate or your instructor face-to-face, then don’t post it online” (Dimeo, 2017).

When executed correctly there are many benefits to online and blended discussions. Students can participate in discussions from anywhere at any time, which is not possible in face-to-face discussions.

Additionally, students who do not normally participate in face-to-face discussions may participate more in online and blended discussions, where they feel more comfortable expressing their thoughts. This all leads to more engagement, better discussions, and a discussion environment where students are better able to critically think about their responses.

As such, online and blended discussions can be less reactive. Students who participate in face-to-face discussions cannot take too long to think about responses, whereas those in an online and blended discussion can read a post, take time to reflect on it, and respond to it at a later time. They are thus better able to make an informed response.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the future of education. This is nowhere more evident than in how online and blended discussions are part of the new normal. Educators must continue to promote discussions both synchronously (classroom or Zoom) and asynchronously (in the LMS or other platforms) with clear structure for students to follow. If they do, both students and educators will benefit!


References

Dimeo, J. (2017). Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2017/09/13/how-keep-discourse-civil-online-courses

Han, F., & Ellis, R. A. (2019). Identifying consistent patterns of quality learning discussions in  blended learning. The Internet and Higher Education, 40, 12-19. From: https://reader.elsevier.com/reader/sd/pii/S1096751618302768?token=C842A96DFFB5195CD16DE32A81C93149C0B078541CC74199CBA800F189C14A44D12BF0A569420BFCD19506B85059C29D

Maher, S., & DeCosta, M. (2014, August 11). The Art and Science of Successful Online Discussions. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/art-science-successful-online-discussions/


Beata AndersonBeata Anderson is a Blended Learning Intern at the Center for Teaching and Learning at Oregon State University. She is originally from Poland and moved to the United States in her early adulthood. First, she lived in Chicago, Illinois, before moving to Eugene, Oregon. She now lives in the greater Seattle area. Beata holds a bachelor’s degree of Arts in General Social Science from University of Oregon and is pursuing a master’s degree in Adult and Higher Education from Oregon State University. Beata also has worked in higher education for eight years and enjoys helping students succeed. Beata loves to travel, and she has been to different parts of the world. In her free time Beata likes to read and learn new things.


Laptop photo by Bram Naus on Unsplash

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