The Heart of My Courses…Online Discussions!

Instructor Spotlight with Rhonda Blackburn, Ph.D.

Rhonda Blackburn Instructor Spotlight

When I think about the courses I teach, one of the things that keeps me up at night is the impact those courses have on my students.

One way to make sure my students are benefiting from the class is to engage them in the content and with each other.  When I’m developing courses, one area I put quite a bit of time into is discussions. I love being able to provide a space for my students to dig deeper into the topic and push each other through dialogue.

I have to say, my discussions have evolved over time. They started out like many others, as a way for me to make sure my students were participating in the class and reading the assigned material. As I learned more about student engagement and online discussion development, I realized this is the central part of my course and I was doing it all wrong. It should be where the content of my course comes to life. It is the heartbeat of the course.

Now, when I develop my course, I ask these questions of my discussion area:

  • Are the students engaged?
  • Is the topic of my discussion meaningful?
  • Is the prompt  asking them to clarify what they read or watch?
  • Are the students sharing their real-world experiences?

When I read the responses to a discussion and it doesn’t bring to life all four of these, I know I missed the mark. I go back and determine how I can change the prompt to make sure it isn’t an “assignment,” but it is truly a “discussion.”

The most important part of the discussion for me is to be present. Depending on the size of the course, I try  to respond to everyone. If the course is too large, I make sure I reply to at least a percentage of the students and rotate throughout the course to make sure I have replied to all students. When replying, I model what a good response is and help them understand how to continue to explore and expand on the topic being discussed. I love to do this by bringing in real-world examples, images or links that pertain to the student’s post, alternative perspectives, and asking questions.

Throughout my years of teaching, with 18 of those being online, I received many emails from my students. However, when I received this one, I knew I was doing something right:

“Thank you again for being an encouraging ‘professor’ and for always throwing in that extra twist to help us think a little bit beyond the obvious.”

That is the idea. To help students think beyond where they are or beyond what they know or beyond their initial ideas. It helps them see things that they weren’t able to see at the beginning of your course.

So, why do we do this?  Why do we use discussions and make sure students are fully participating?

  • Students engagement and connection. If the students are engaged in the topic and connected with their peers, they are more likely to stay in your class and fulfill the objectives of the course.
  • Content development. It is part of the course that you can use to continue to build out your content.  It allows you to bring life to your course through case studies, real-world examples, student involvement and research.
  • Competencies development. When students are engaged with the discussions, it gives you an opportunity to see what students really know. This is one reason why you don’t want them to just answer questions that they can easily find an answer to in the text. You want them to analyze, synthesize, and find additional resources, videos, audios, images, studies, and technologies to expand on the prompt that you provide.
  • Community building: Discussions are a great way for students to build a community. They learn about each other through the experiences they share and reflect on.  It also allows you to learn more about the students, so you can bring in those experiences as you expand on what they write.

When you are building your discussions, there are some elements that you can include to encourage students to participate. You should start the course with an introductory discussion, so students have an opportunity to start building their community. This creates a safe zone for students. Make this part fun, but definitely set the tone you want your class to take. I like having my students write about specific areas and then have them share one unique thing about themselves. But I also have them go back and find two people in class with something in common with them. This shows students there are people in the class like them, which can be very comforting to students. Once they realize the discussion area is a crucial part of the course, they will spend quite a bit of time there during the semester.

You can also use techniques like learning circles to reduce the number of students who are having to interact with one another if the class is large. Or, informal sharing areas, like an ungraded assignment sometimes referred to as a student lounge.  I like using the informal area so students can share resources with each other that might not be directly related to the course. I also include an informal area where I will copy any emails I send to the class just in case they don’t check their emails on a consistent basis.

How can we do this in a way that will help engage our students and help them learn?

Here are six ways that I engage my students in online discussions:

  1. Personalize your conversationMake it personal. When you read your students’ posts you will learn more about them. This will help you continue to bring in their experiences and expertise into your replies to them. This also helps students internalize the content and make it their own. When they see the examples in their life, it becomes real.
  2. Provide feedback and comments within a rubric. It is helpful to students to know what you are expecting of them throughout the class.  Discussions are no exception.  Having a rubric for students to follow is helpful and allows you to give deeper feedback to them throughout the course.
  3. Use references and resources to support THEIR concept or provide a different point of view. It is helpful for the student if you are able to provide a link to a resource or an image that supports their post.  It allows them to see what they were saying in a different way.  Also, if you feel like a different viewpoint would be more beneficial in helping students understand the topic, provide them with this information or a question to help guide them there.
  4. Create prompts that are reflective and encourage open discussion: Prompts are very important.  Yet, the prompt needs to help students have a deeper discussion.  If you are reading the responses to your prompt and everyone is saying the same thing, then it may not create a deep discussion.  Make sure students can bring in their perspective or experience and allow them to expand on what they have already read.
  5. Apply comments and responses to the real world: Real-world responses are powerful for students to understand and master the topic.
  6. Substantive and thoughtful feedback: Feedback is important for students as they are learning a new topic.  Are they on the right track?  By replying to students and providing substantive feedback or responses in the discussion, all students get to see how they can think about the topic and see what they understand about the topic.