Best Practices in Managing Online Discussions

After last week’s post, we hope you have a good idea about which discussion forum tool might work best for you and your courses. After all, asynchronous discussion often makes up a large part of of student participation in online education. Which means that you want to make sure forum discussions are productive and effective, both in terms of achieving learning objectives and promoting student engagement.

In order to solicits tips on how best to meet such criteria, we turned to students for feedback. Based on surveys and focus groups conducted by our office, students told us that for online discussion to be effective and engaging they need the following:

  • Clear directions for how, where, and when to respond.
  • Prompts that help to guide the discussion towards specific learning objectives.
  • Instructor presence! They want you to not only participate, but also to help push the discussion to the next level.
  • And, lastly, they want you to focus on the ideas and content presented in their response post more than the presentation itself (i.e. grammar and syntax).

These are great tips, ones that we not only agree with, but also that mirror current research in online discussions. In addition to these, we’d like to add the following:

  • Consider providing a discussion board rubric for your students, such as this one, so they know what is expected of them. Also, modeling substantive responses can be a good idea.
  • In terms of instructor presence, don’t hover, but make sure students know you are there. For example, if a student asks a question, give the other students the opportunity to answer first, but be ready to jump in if the answer is incorrect or turns the discussion in an unproductive direction.  If you see a cursory response, consider prompting the student for more information. If you see a profound post, consider offering thanks and encouragement, either in the forum or privately. Students want to know that they are heard, and there are direct and indirect ways to assert your presence while still allowing them to provide the substance of discussions.
  • Make participation a big part of your course grade. Be sure students know that this grade is not only how often they post (quantity) but how well (quality). Your rubric will come in handy here.

If you’re interested and have some time on your hands, here’s a fairly comprehensive guide that covers best practices, strategies, and management tips for mastering online discussions.