10 Tips for Setting Up Online Discussions with Your Class
Sheila Pinchin, Office of Health Sciences Education
Are you setting up blended learning in your course? Will your students be participating in an online discussion board, such as WebCT? Here are 10 tips that may help you get started.
1. Consider size and facilitating: Try to create discussion groups of no more than 15 members. Try to get facilitators for different groups if possible. Depending on how many questions, tasks, and how fervent the discussion, a facilitator can be monitoring hundreds of postings. Check into privacy issues when you are deciding who facilitators should be. E.g. If the facilitator is a senior student there may be privacy and authority issues. Ideally the professor would oversee all boards, and be able to "dip" into discussions, and trouble-shoot if a facilitator brings a problem or a fabulous answer forward. With smaller numbers of groups, the professor may facilitate all.
2. Aim for diversity in groups: Diversity among group members is great, and it's often present in random groupings. But grouping to represent variety in the students’ work experience is powerful because the students can share their experiences with each other then and learn from them. For example, if students are placed in work experience settings of rural communities, small cities, large cities, other provinces, farming communities, mining communities, etc., the postings from a variety of work settings will enrich the discussion, if there are representatives from each community in each discussion group.
Why not build in questions about the variety you’ve introduced into the groups? For example, ask the students to report on the types of injuries that are common in a rural farming community, etc.
3. Maintain privacy: Students should be cautioned not to mention names of people (patients or staff), or even facilities by name...they can characterize generally: 40 year old male etc...in a rural setting etc...
This protects the privacy of patients and also of staff whose practices may end up being discussed as models, etc. Caution students that professional demeanour is important in this respect…don’t write what you wouldn’t say…
4. Observe netiquette and maintain professionalism: Strongly emphasize netiquette (see this link as an example: http://www.studygs.net/netiquette.htm) and reinforce by creating a section of the rubric for assessment on tone of voice, support for colleagues on the board and ability to move the discussion forward. This will be extremely important if the students are discussing ethical issues or other controversial issues, but is equally important to establish a climate of positive, supportive learning.
Asking students to review a posting prior to sending it to check for professional tone is useful. In fact, advise students to write in a word processing document first, before copying and pasting to the Discussion Board composition text box. This allows for spell checking as well as building in a pause prior to sending anything. Remember that on WebCT, once a message has been sent, only the administrator can delete it.
5. Assess participation on the discussion board: Be explicit about what you want to see in the Discussion Board by assigning criteria in a rubric, checklist or scale for assessment of student work. You can use this rubric formatively, to offer un-graded comments to further the work of the students, and also summatively, to offer grades and comments at milestones in the course.
6. Prepare discussion board topics: Set up the topics for the discussion board ahead of time and refer to these topics, using correct wording, in the modules of content. E.g. "When you have completed your consideration of pro's and con's of xxx, post your ideas to 'For and Against' on the WebCT Discussion Board." Leave topics open for students to use for smaller discussions.
7. Practise using the Learning Management System (e.g.WebCT) face to face if possible: If you have the opportunity to see your students face to face prior to using the discussion board, have the students practise in the classroom while you're with them and have WebCT (or another learning management system) in front of you. Practice logging in (for WebCT, you need Net ID which is usually your post or qlink) finding your way around, and posting and replying in thread. This will save all kinds of trouble-shooting later. But, just in case: schedule synchronous chats or keep pre-determined “office hours” for students with questions. Respond within a set time period to emails from students in the field.
8. When you’re developing tasks for online work, use sound pedagogy.
Be explicit about the Learning Objectives so students understand them. Link Learning Objectives to Assessment, so students are aware of how they will be assessed, and how grading ties into assessment.
9. Be clear about your expectations for participation on the discussion board. If you want students to respond to others, be explicit about what you consider response to be. Provide examples of effective response. (See Promoting Online Discussion, another article in this set.) If you want students to create or develop something, be clear about all of the criteria for successful participation in this task.
10. Use sound practice in teaching and learning to develop tasks:
Develop these (types of) tasks: reflect, read, apply, discuss, apply, synthesize, look back
• Reflection tasks (activating prior knowledge and/or experience) to lead into an activity such as a case scenario, an Anticipation Guide, a pre-test, or pose a reflective question
• Reading from the literature around this topic and summarizing key concepts or controversial issues (Use journal articles they can access through WebProxy from home or work placement or web articles from reputable sources, or use a courseware pack of articles printed with appropriate copyright permissions ahead of time.) Offer guiding questions to accompany the reading.
• Applying the reflection and reading to a case scenario, or other situated questioning technique
• Asking students to work together (via email or discussion board) or to respond to each other’s applications on the discussion board
• Asking students to synthesize learning, by creating something new from their reflection, reading and discussions,
• Asking students to review the learning, and respond in a journal or log to bring back with them, and/or tie into their ongoing activities
Berge, Z.L. (1995). Facilitating Computer Conferencing: Recommendations From the Field. Educational Technology. 35(1) 22-30 and http://www.emoderators.com/moderators/teach_online.html
Keywords: Online Learning, Online Discussion, WebCT, Blended Learning