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Leading an online discussion is both similar to and different from leading a classroom discussion. Instructors should be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each of these types of forums.
Online instructors must remember that students may be new to the subject matter and often need help in having productive conversations in discussion forums or virtual classroom settings.
Instructors can help facilitate these interactions by prompting learners when conversations stall or head off course. They may need to gently correct statements made in a group setting that are inaccurate or foster a misinterpretation of the material.
The best discussion topics encourage learners to apply what they have learned in the course content, either to what they already know or to new circumstances. Another approach is to ask students to take a position on a question and explain why they are doing so.
To spark collaboration among learners, instructors can ask students to jointly resolve a difficult question through discussion (in larger classes, some instructors use polling technology to surface the “winning” position.)
Here are tips from experienced online instructors for leading discussions, both in real-time and iterative modes.
- Establish the parameters at the outset for appropriate discussion (parameters which might include civility, courtesy, respect for others, no use of profanity, etc.). This can be communicated through an initial post and/or in the course outline. You may want students to know that you reserve the right to edit or delete posts.
- Connect topics with the readings and online materials but seek to challenge students to think critically and move beyond simple recall. For example, a discussion about the origins of the Civil War might be started by asking students whether or not the North and South could have found a compromise to avert war and what would such a compromise have looked like. This sort of question asks learners to synthesize and move beyond a simple recitation of what they’ve encountered in the course materials.
- Encourage all learners to participate in online discussions by linking their involvement to grades or by providing other incentives.
- Praise learner posts that contribute to a discussion.
- Guide off-topic conversations back to the question at hand.
- Ask students to describe their real world experiences (where appropriate) as a way of making the discussion more relevant.
- Don’t feel the need to constantly interject yourself into the discussion—pick your spots judiciously.
When handled correctly, online discussions can engage and involve all the students in a course or class. Some students who don’t feel comfortable contributing in a classroom setting find online discussions more inviting. The more an instructor can do to encourage this participation, the greater pedagogical value this activity will have for learners.
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