The Art & Science of Developing an Asynchronous Discussion Topic
Many faculty have tried facilitating online discussions in classes that are taught wholly or partly using a Web-based conferencing system, with varying degrees of success. This paper focuses on strategies for designing and facilitating online discussion in a way that provides adequate guidance for students from the start; allows each student to have a unique contribution; requires that students read each other's messages; promotes student-student discussion; and does not overwhelm the instructor during facilitation.
In this day of moving classes online and serving students who are separated from the university by factors of time and space, many faculty have tried facilitating online discussions in classes that are taught wholly or partly using a Web-based conferencing system. Their attempts have been met with varying degrees of success. For the minority, their intuitive teaching style leads them to a successful experience one that generates quality student participation without overwhelming the instructor. It is not uncommon, however, to hear the war stories of instructors who despite repeated attempts could not achieve as deep of a discussion as they do in a traditional classroom, or who spent an entire semester living and breathing at the computer in order to keep a discussion going.
Discussion activities in an asynchronous environment need to be clearly and carefully designed in order to achieve the desired amount and level of discussion. While we do not normally think of ourselves as designing discussion in a traditional classroom because we tend to do it 'in the moment' or unconsciously, successful online discussion cannot rely solely or even largely on ad hoc facilitation strategies to shape the activity. The online instructor needs to find ways to motivate students at the beginning of a discussion activity, in the hopes of avoiding problems like no participation, participation clustered in the last 24 hours of a discussion period, or participation that consists of posted messages that lack responsiveness or a sense of dialogue.
What is it that we can design in advance of our students participating? The focus here is on developing discussion prompts, topics, and guidelines in a way that provides adequate guidance for students from the start; allows each student to have a unique contribution; requires that students read each other's messages; promotes student-student discussion; and does not overwhelm the instructor during facilitation.
Background and Supporting Literature
To begin, it is useful to consider what it means to discuss. In a traditional classroom it tends to be a turn-taking activity, moderated or facilitated by an instructor, and following a particular theme. The discussion may follow tangents and will be shaped by some combination of the instructor's intent and the learners' contributions as they unfold in real time. We tend to not label or classify these discussions, unless there is a clear activity involved such as brainstorming. It is useful, however, to think about the purpose or desired outcomes of a discussion, particularly when moving into an online format. Online dialogue may take four different forms, depending on the discussants purposes : (1) Dialectic conversation is focused on logical arguments for uncovering truth; (2) discussion conversation occurs when different parties put forth their own perspectives; (3) dialogue conversation involves the building of intersubjective meaning through conversation; and (4) design conversation takes place when the focus of participants is building something. In an online course, discussion is the most common of these communication types, although dialogue and design conversation have clear applications in an online environment as well. Dialectic conversation is inquiry-based and less common, although still possible in an asynchronous discussion.
A distinguishing factor of asynchronous online course is the capacity to follow several thoughts all at once. Threading tools help us organize these different discussion tangents . While this feature is advantageous in some ways, allowing everyone the chance to share their viewpoint even if it differs from the dominant discussion thread, it also has its disadvantages; when multiple threads are available, having a discussion based on mutual understandings and group experiences becomes significantly more difficult .
In terms of discussion structure, Rogers argues that at its core, asynchronous discussion is linear, but that it is through our selective interaction with the discussion that it becomes non-linear. He further states that online discussion thus must start with guidelines designed to support curricular-based conversation and that the structure of the conversation should be a question-and-answer series. This recommendation, however, does not inherently promote peer interaction and may lead to several independent instructor-student dialogues; while students may benefit from reading each others' interactions with the instructor, this model of discussion is labor-intensive for the instructor and discourages peer sharing.
Various factors must be considered in the interest of generating actual dialogue and not just a collection of posts. Nonis, Bronack, and Heaton suggest that we might look at this issue in terms of four facilitative structures, environment, socialization, motivation and expectations. By environment, they mean that students should feel comfortable and able to participate; this is not just a technical issue, but also a matter of encouraging student buy-in to the course discussion through encouragement of sharing. Socially, they recommend that a moderator be used to respond to students but not in a way that shuts down peer interaction and facilitate the tone and issues of the discussion. In terms of motivation and expectations, students need to know exactly what they are supposed to do and why they are supposed to do it.
Instructors can use incremental deadlines to help maintain or force conversation-like interactions. When students are given a deadline, typically they wait until the last minute to do an assignment. In an asynchronous medium, it is difficult to have a last-minute discussion unless all students are logged in at the same time and are emulating a synchronous interaction through the asynchronous medium. An assignment that requires students to enter the forum by multiple deadlines and post specific kinds of responses at each deadline can impose the kind of structure that is necessary to develop discussion-like interaction.
Discussion Prompts that Promote Dialogue
While facilitation strategies are undeniably a factor in promoting discussion, the discussion prompt is the initial direction for online students, who may choose to respond immediately or reflect on the topic and assignment for a while before contributing. Two key components of the discussion prompt are the issue (what will be discussed) and guidelines (how it should be discussed).
The issue in a traditional live class tends to focus on a lecture students have just heard or readings they have just completed. These same things can serve as discussion starters in an online course, only they need to be adequately developed and defined. A prompt to "discuss the readings" is too generic, and will generate a floundering response from students.
Even the most well-defined issue, however, can result in floundering participation as well. Students want to know what is expected of them in terms of quality, quantity and nature of their participation as well as in terms of topic. Students may be reticent to respond to a discussion prompt until others have set the model, unless the instructor has developed a clear model for them. Additionally some students will think one message is adequate participation while others will fret that their seven messages are not enough.
It is perhaps most fruitful to begin with an examination of overly vague discussion prompts and their likely results. A comparison between a traditional and an online class discussion highlights the increased importance of being well-prepared for online discussion:
Sample Vague Prompt: "What did you think of the readings?" Or "What were the three main points of the author?"
Students might raise their hands to respond to the question. Only one student needs to respond in order to get the discussion going. It there are no hands raised, the instructor might revise the question, or wait until the room gets a bit uncomfortable and finally someone speaks. Such actions might be based on student reactions within the classroom; the instructor can reframe the question, provide smaller, leading questions, suggest alternate routes into the discussion, and negotiate meaning with the students. To maintain the discussion, the instructor may then weave together student comments, ask more questions, and add his or her own perspective until the bell rings. It is the instructor's facilitation skills that determine the eventual success of this activity.
It is likely that students would read this prompt and not respond until someone else goes first and sets the model. It might take a while a number of days, really before a student feels bold enough to answer. Whatever responses do come in may not fit the instructor's expectations, likely being too general. The instructor might then implore the student to say more; in order for the student to say more, he or she must return to the discussion looking for feedback. Unless the instructor carefully invites other students to participate and help expand the conversation, other students might take the instructor's response to be part of a discussion with that individual student.
In the case of the second vague prompt, once one student chimes in with the three main points, others may be less likely to participate assuming that the instructor's question has been answered. The instructor may facilitate by adding other questions or trying to channel the discussion in a particular direction, but there is no guarantee that the students will return to read these additions to the discussion. The initial prompt, thus, was the instructor's big chance to shape the way this activity unfolds.
As can be seen in these examples, specificity of expectations and room for multiple answers both are important factors in online discussion. A fact-based question has one right answer; once one students has given the correct response there is little incentive for others to participate, and if the instructor's goal is to see if students know the right answer, group discussion is not the best assessment method. Asking students to discuss the main points from certain readings is better, but still can reach a saturation point early in the pool of responses. To counter this saturation effect, students could each be asked to pick a unique topic or issue from the reading and share thoughts about it with the class, or they could be asked to provide a unique example or resource. It is still possible that duplicates would arise, but this type of prompt results in fewer duplicates.
Other activities that enable group sharing include sharing paper topics early in the writing process; debates; assigned role-plays, in which students must each take a unique, assigned angle on an issue; and jigsaw-type reading summaries, in which students all read, summarize, and share a different article with their discussion group. An instructor would want to use small (4 to 8 student) discussion groups in order to keep these activities manageable. In each case, the discussion prompt needs to specify that unique responses are expected.
Enabling students to have unique responses solves one problem, but can result in a series of posted messages read only by the teacher. In order to ensure that students read each other's contributions, such actions must be required. The best way to assess that students read each other's work is to ask them to respond to each other. This requirement should be built into the discussion prompt itself. An instructor might write the prompt as a series of steps to be followed:
Through these five steps, students are required to engage in posting with at least three other classmates, and it is likely that they will interact with five or more classmates during the course of the discussion. The discussion activity requires reading the course materials, and doing a little Internet-based research; successful completion of the discussion assignment requires critical thinking skills such as analysis and synthesis. Students who participate in this type of discussion will be engaging with the course material; they cannot complete the activity by just skimming the surface of an issue and they must be involved with at least four issue-based topics during the activity.
Not all discussion prompts created in this manner need to center around readings or require research. This same general framework of initial messages, developing someone else's initial message, questioning classmates, answering questions and then summarizing what was learned can be applied directly or in variation to any number of discussion situations.
One challenge that still remains with this type of discussion is timeliness and interdependence of students. Clearly no student can participate in this discussion alone, and that is the point. However, it is not fair that students who are conscientious and considerate of their classmates by posting early may have to wait to complete the assignment at the last minute because their classmates procrastinate or are not so well-organized. Incremental deadlines help in these situations; recognizing that a fair number of students are likely to complete their work in a deadline-driven manner, deadlines can be provided at each stage of the discussion. In the above example, there would be five separate deadlines for participation. Students eager to complete their work early would know when they could expect their peers to have completed the previous stage, thus reducing their frustration.
What is the right timing for deadlines? This really needs to be determined according to the overall class schedule in conjunction with the complexity of what students are being asked to do. A discussion period should match with other class activities. It does not make sense to extend a discussion on a topic past the date of the exam or related assignments. Thus, the overall discussion period can be used to help develop the scope of the discussion activity. Then within that scope, deadlines can be generated for the smaller discussion tasks. As a general rule of thumb, there should be enough time to allow students with busy schedules to reasonably participate, but not so much time that the discussion loses momentum. Typically, three to four days is adequate, unless a great deal of research is required.
Using the above example, I would recommend three days each for parts 1, 2 and 4, and perhaps only two days each for parts 3 and 5; the former parts require more thought and preparation than the latter ones. Also necessary to consider is weekdays versus weekends. It is not reasonable to expect that students will complete the assignment over a weekend; many students reserve that time for travel or families. When a weekend is part of the time frame, giving an extra day or two often is a good idea.
Additional guidelines may need to be provided in terms of the expected length and depth of the response. For undergraduates, the three-sentence rule provides a good minimum Once students say "I agree with you," and "That's a good idea," they generally are forced into adding at least one original thought of their own. If explicit references to readings are expected, that should be included in the guidelines as well. Providing model responses, even if they are responses to an altogether different topic, is a good idea as long as you do not think students will copy them too literally.
In closing, the combination of issues that allow for unique responses and clear, thorough guidelines within an online discussion prompt is a good way to promote learning dialogue in an online class. There is no one formula for writing discussion prompts; they must be crafted in a context-specific manner. Instructors who spend the time and effort to consider these factors when designing thier discussion prompts will reap the rewards of students who know what to discuss and how to discuss it: a lively course conversation through which learning takes place.
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Nonis, A. S., Bronack, S. C., & Heaton, L. (2000). Web-based discussions: Building effective electronic communities for preservice technology education. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 8(1), 3-11.
Rogers, C. R. (1998). A theoretical look at electronic community's conversation and curriculum. ERIC Document ED430551.
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