Are boring discussions taking over your online course?

If your online courses involve online discussion (and they should!), I urge you to consider the types of discussions your students are having. Before I get into that, lets discuss the advantages of online discussion. Online discussion is what separates online courses from traditional distance learning correspondence courses. It gives us that ‘feel’ i.e., social presence, that a face to face course has. So if you want your learners to be happy there needs to be an element of discussion and student/teacher presence in the course. However, what I find is that many online instructors have boring discussions causing a slight decrease in satisfaction when comparing their online vs face to face student satisfaction scores. In fact at the end of my online courses I get many comments from students stating that they were happy they didn’t have boring discussions like other online courses they have taken. Many say they were nervous to take my course due to bad experiences in other online courses.

Why does this happen?

We know the students need to do the discussions as part of the learning process however the students usually see most discussions as busy work – something they are required to do, that is not fun, that they feel they do not get a lot out of. As a result, I have been experimenting with a discussion strategy that I believe works very well in online courses, which promotes learning and makes each discussion very beneficial for the student.

What do I do?

Instead of posing a discussion question that I hope sparks students interest I have students do a project. While we all love discussion questions the issue is that in a 5, 8 or 15 week course where students need to participate each week, there is no way you are going to come up with 1-3 discussion questions each week that students generally care about and thus they lose motivation doing the same thing over and over again. In addition, many discussion questions don’t even spark discussion and students are posting simply to meet the requirements in the course. This is boring! So I create a project for each week of the course that students post to the discussion forum and then discuss. I love this idea because students will get to see how another student viewed the assignment and learn from what they did. What are some example projects/activities that I have students do instead of a weekly discussion question? Some examples include presentations, videos, screencasts, critique articles/videos, charts, collages, short fictional stories, and many others. I try to make each week a different activity that relates to the content covered for the week. This way before my week starts students have done a small project on the topic and they have started discussing it. What I find is that many students go in and look at each students project because they are curious to see what their classmates did. This creates a great learning environment and makes students very comfortable with each other. I find that doing this has increased my end of course review scores, end of course comments, and increased the amount of compliments I get for my online courses. Give it a try and see how it works out for you. And I find this works for both undergraduate and graduate courses!

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