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6 Ways to Improve Online Discussions with Harmonize

We’ll help you figure out how to engage students in online discussions, using the tools your institution already has + some!

how to engage students in online discussions - instructor tips

With your Learning Management System already core to your students’ learning, we know it’s important to create a cohesive digital experience for students if you want to continue boosting engagement. That means using tools that integrate with and enrich the learning experience. The good news is that you already have everything you need, and in this article we’ll help you figure out how to engage students in online discussions, using the tools your institution already has!

The online discussion board is proving to be one of the most powerful digital learning tools. In fact, thoughtful online class discussions encourage more peer-to-peer interaction, which studies show drastically improves engagement and student achievement. Institutions using Harmonize’s discussion tool in their LMS have seen significant increases in student engagement, participation, and the quality of interactions.

In this article, we’re sharing the five best ways that instructors at institutions, like the University of Michigan, Brown University, Meridian Community College, Fayetteville State University, and the Virginia Community College System, are boosting the quality and frequency of student participation in online discussions.

1. Using ChatGPT in Harmonize for Effective Prompts

We’ve integrated ChatGPT into Harmonize, coupling it with sound pedagogy on what makes a good discussion prompt, so you can write prompts more quickly and effectively.

How it Works:

Harmonize coaches ChatGPT on the best pedagogy for discussion and assignment prompts. Our belief is that instructors should be the subject matter experts and if we couple our knowledge of pedagogy with their expertise, we can leverage ChatGPT to brainstorm together to build a better prompt. Because we’ve trained ChatGPT on many course-level appropriate interaction strategies, the students will have different discussion prompt approaches at different points in their career so they never get bored and stay engaged with the content.

The Result: Better, more engaging prompts across your courses and at different levels within a course.

2. Multiple Due Dates for Ongoing Participation

Multiple due dates, or what we call ‘Milestones’ in Harmonize, let an instructor set clear expectations for student participation. By setting milestones with notifications, students are reminded of approaching deadlines — pulling them back into the conversation on an ongoing basis AND eliminating the onslaught of eleventh-hour posts that often inundate instructors.

How it Works:

Milestones allow an instructor to set multiple due dates for an assignment — often not possible in your LMS discussions — which require a certain number of discussion posts, comments, and reactions by specific due dates. This provides students with clear instructions and sets baseline expectations for how often students should be interacting.

Students can easily view their progress and due dates on each post as well as in calendar/to-do lists within the LMS. The best part of milestones is that they are easy to set up and encourage more meaningful contributions from students, encouraging them to post beyond the surface-level comments that often characterize last-minute submissions. And when you enable Harmonize’s auto-grading with your milestones, you can save time by automatically evaluating student participation.

When Meridian Community College started using milestones to power ongoing course discussions in its LMS, the institution experienced a 56% increase in student engagement. With students required to comment on a classmate’s post, create a response to a discussion prompt, and add reactions throughout discussions, MCC saw 4x the increase in discussion board participation.

The Result: See ongoing participation from students and no longer drown in a flurry of last-minute posts that create the dreaded never-ending thread.

3. A Mobile-first Interface that Students Understand

You know as well as anyone that today’s students are digital natives and accustomed to communicating with one another online and building community virtually. Because of that, they expect this to bubble over naturally into their online learning and academic experiences — that includes your online discussions. So if you want to increase engagement in discussions, you’ll want to be sure your discussion board is something they’re accustomed to in their personal lives — think social media!

How it Works:

Harmonize’s intuitive, user-friendly design looks similar to social media apps, which makes it naturally easier for students and instructors to use. With familiar features like tagging, notifications, and in-app & email notifications, students can complete assignments without any training, which increases the likelihood they’ll continue using it. It’s also available 24/7 and made for mobile devices — perfect for students on the go and allowing all students to connect and participate at any time.

When Brown University implemented Harmonize, conversations became better and more frequent. With features familiar to students, like the ability to post and reply with in-line media, tagging, and social-media reactions, students felt comfortable and began participating voluntarily — often without being prompted. James Foley, Director for Digital Learning & Design, adds, “Harmonize elevated our course discussion experiences for students. With features that keep students engaged, it’s flexible for all users and has the kind of built-in social engagement that increases student participation.”

The Result: An easy-to-access, social media-inspired interface encourages student activity, even from their phones.

4. Multimedia & Annotation

The more traditional, LMS-based discussion approach only gives students one way to contribute, and that’s limiting for many. What you often end up with are long, text-heavy discussions, a lack of interactivity, and a recipe for total student disengagement.

How it Works:

But with Harmonize, students can submit written responses, create snippets of audio, make and send videos, even annotate images and video, as well as launch or respond to polls right from within discussion boards. Instructors can also use multimedia and annotate students’ work, providing a visual form of feedback to help students improve — important when you consider the role visuals play in improving students’  learning.

When the University of Michigan started incorporating multimedia into their discussions — expanding the ways in which students could express themselves — they began to see an increase in organic interaction among students. U-M faculty had a new level of instructional flexibility that could cater to students’ different learning styles, and students were able to start building stronger social connections among each other.

“Harmonize supports every learner. It allows my students to pause, observe, and reflect before entering the discussion with their peers, which is helping us create a stronger social learning community,” said R. Bruno, English Professor at the University of Michigan.

The Result: Supporting diverse learning styles, and using features that can create the same kind of community as in the classroom, will engage students more deeply in their learning.

5. Time-Saving Grading with NO MORE Manual Tasks

There’s no reason to be doing anything manual when it comes to grading. You shouldn’t have to waste time on transferring grades or copy & pasting for plagiarism checks. By providing all of the information instructors need on one page, Harmonize makes it easy to evaluate student performance and provide feedback, auto-grade participation, and have those grades automatically passed back to your LMS.

How it Works:

Harmonize’s activity dashboards provide an at-a-glance view of everything an instructor needs to evaluate student work, with the ability to drill down into a student’s specific posts and responses. This provides a more holistic view of how well students are developing and mastering course material, as well as how engaged they are in the material. Instructors can:

  • Auto-grade student participation or use rubrics to assess student performance.
  • Automatically send feedback and grades back to your LMS.
  • Automatically check for plagiarism through Harmonize’s integrations with Turnitin, Unicheck, an Ouriginal.

But don’t take our word for it. When the Virginia Community College System was looking for a solution to seamlessly integrate with their LMS, Canvas, they saw that Harmonize would streamline the grading experience for instructors, allowing them to focus more of their time on feedback and instruction.

Now with Single Sign-On and built-in plagiarism detection, instructors have a more holistic view of a student’s performance in discussions so they can more quickly provide feedback — no longer spending hours searching for posts. In a survey of faculty using Harmonize at Virginia’s Tidewater Community College:

  • 71% said using auto-grading made grading easier when compared to other discussion platforms, crediting the milestone multiple due date feature.
  • 86% found Harmonize effective for grading and giving feedback.
  • 100% said uploading, creating, and sharing content was easy.

Similarly, at Fayetteville State University, instructors felt better equipped to evaluate participation. By taking advantage of Harmonize’s activity dashboards, auto-grading, and plagiarism detection integrations, instructors saved valuable time. Added bonus…easing the administrative burden on instructors also helped increase adoption. After one term of use, a survey of FSU instructors showed that:

  • 9 out of 10 of instructors would recommend using Harmonize to their peers, and
  • 100% were satisfied with online discussions in Harmonize

“Harmonize gave our faculty all the extra things that they couldn’t do with previous tools and that made all the difference for student engagement. Better integrations, easier grading, and rich multimedia and video discussions got our instructors and students more engaged across the board,” says Dr. Claudette Fuller, Instructional Designer at FSU.

The Result: Streamlined grading, less clicks, and a more cohesive teaching experience saves instructors time so they can focus on providing feedback.

6. Re-engage Students Before it’s Too Late

Of all the tips and recommendations for optimizing student engagement, this one has a huge impact! Just imagine what engagement could look like if you were able to implement all of these tips right from one application. When you have a single suite of tools that integrate with your LMS and allow you to build more engaging online courses, you’ll end up having something so much more powerful: the right kind of information.

To increase student engagement in online learning, it’s important to be able to track that engagement. And traditionally, it’s been hard to know which students are engaged and which are not. And sometimes, by the time you can get a good sense, that student has dropped off entirely. That doesn’t have to be the case anymore.

How it Works:

With analytics built into your online discussion, communication, and collaboration tools, you’re able to quickly understand how students are progressing toward goals. You can see who, how, and when students are participating in courses. You can see which students need more attention and which topics worked best. Serving as an early-warning system, these kinds of student engagement insights can help instructors trigger customized outreach to specific students — promptly and proactively re-engaging them in discussion and working to get them back on track. It’s an easy but effective way to help instructors improve engagement and retention in their courses.

The Result: New visibility into how students are engaging gives you a way to quantify student-to-student, student-to-instructor, and student-to-content engagement over time — providing an opportunity to proactively support students before it’s too late.

A Seamless Integration with your LMS in Under 30 Minutes

You could integrate Harmonize’s suite of digital discussion and collaboration tools seamlessly with your LMS to facilitate a more engaging online learning experience. Harmonize’s full and seamless LTI integration mean no additional logins for users and a streamlined, time-saving grading experience for instructors, allowing you to:

✓Build lively discussions around relevant and challenging topics

✓Meet students where they are by being creating an inclusive learning environment

✓Create multiple avenues for interaction using polls, Q&A, chat, video, annotation and more

✓ Facilitate frequent collaboration through peer reviews, 1:1 or group work, and milestones

✓ Gain the insights needed to track those at risk of disengaging from your course

If your institution is already using Harmonize, we invite you to try it in your online courses. It’s everything you need to increase student engagement and optimize the online components of your course — all while saving you time. And in just 30 minutes, you could well be on your way to building a stronger, more engaged social learning community for your students.

To learn how instructors at your institution are using Harmonize and to sign up to see if your eligible to use Harmonize in your online, hybrid or blending learning courses, click here.

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