5 Tips for Engaging Students in Online Discussions

Lively online discussions can connect peers in new ways and deepen their understanding of course material. But if you’re relying on dreaded, threaded discussions, you may not get the results you’re looking for.

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Class discussion matters. Students learn better when they’re actively engaged with class material, with other students, and with their instructor.

In the online classroom, class discussion boards are a critical piece of your pedagogy. It’s here that students share ideas, make connections, and dig more deeply into course material. And while instructors can bring their skills and knowledge to bear on keeping discussions engaging and productive, in the online classroom, technology plays an outsized role. That’s why we’re excited to let you know about some of the capabilities available with Harmonize that will make online discussions more effective, vibrant, and engaging.

1. Make it social

There are a lot of reasons that social media has become the language of a new generation. One reason, of interest to educators, is the way that visual media in particular can engage students who might be uncomfortable with other learning styles. Unfortunately, discussion boards have been slow to adopt new tools and technologies, relying on the tried-and-trued threaded discussion. We’ve taken our cue from what students today are looking for: a fresh, engaging user interface that’s as visual as it is verbal. Topic cards introduce new discussions in a visually compelling way and students can simply click on a card to flip it over and follow the discussion. In Harmonize, students can talk to each other using @mentions and they’ll be able to react to posts as well.

2. Use Multimedia

Learning can happen anywhere—that’s why learning resources are increasingly multi-modal. Students and instructors expect learning to happen in a variety of ways and they are using video, photographs, animations and more to explain and explore the world. Our education partners have told us that enhancing online discussions with new media and tools was a top priority. In response, we came up with a few ways for students and instructors to import and manage files, images, and video. Now, they can drag and drop those materials directly into discussion threads, manipulate them easily (they can, for example, rotate images after they’ve been embedded) and even annotate videos and images with easy-to-use tools. And now audio and video content can be uploaded directly from a mobile phone–opening up the classroom to new possibilities. All content is automatically saved. These are simple, but transformative ways to open up new avenues of thought and experience.

3. Try Out Anonymous Posting

Studies have shown that some students are more likely to post on an online discussion board if they can remain anonymous. Students now have the option to post anonymously if they choose. Why be anonymous? Students often have concerns about privacy, negative responses, or their unfamiliarity with online learning can all be factors. Students posting anonymously were particularly more likely to ask questions or start their own discussion threads. It may not be the right solution for every assignment, but anonymous posting can be a useful tool to help students build confidence in their own self-presentation.

4. Empower students

As online learning continues to evolve, we’re learning more about how students engage in online discussions. We are learning that the virtual classroom doesn’t erase the differences that students bring to their virtual conversations and instructors are experimenting with ways to make sure everyone is heard. In response, instructors are asking their students to experiment with different media—for instance, by mixing video responses with more traditional written responses. In Harmonize, students have the traditional option to introduce themselves in their own words and adding their social media links. Some students are also posting videos to introduce themselves to their peers. And if an instructor or student wants to add a synchronous learning experience to classroom discussion, they can simply launch a video conferencing meeting directly from Harmonize and record it for later viewing.

Moving beyond the threaded discussion means moving toward new ways to listen, to learn, and to participate. We’re hopeful that these new tools and others we have in the pipeline will help foster a more open, more engaged, and more democratic classroom experience for every student.

5. Empower instructors

Online learning has given students new ways to access education and greater flexibility in how they tackle their coursework. It’s also raised the learning curve for instructors who often have to master new skills in addition to the disciplines they’ve studied to teach. Key features in Harmonize help ease the administrative burden for online instructors. Even instructors sometimes need a “do-over.” They can now easily edit or delete assignments. They can also delete submissions if, for some reason, it’s deemed unsuitable or inappropriate or just missed the mark. Students can be asked to resubmit their assignments. The grading tool also displays the word count of an assignment–an easy way for instructors to gauge the effort put into a submission before reviewing it. We’ll continue to introduce new features that help instructors master the hurdles of online teaching to focus on teaching and learning.