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!

Structuring a discussion forum in an online course

When creating a discussion board for an online course you do not just create it and hope it gets used. You also do not just put a bunch of boring questions and hope students learn something. You need to plan it out. I am going to highlight several of the things that I use and have found add to my student’s success and course enjoyment.

Help! – A help or questions and answer forum is a great place for students to ask questions. Students can ask questions and other students can respond. This saves me time because if a student answers the question, I may not need to. Additionally, all students in the course get to see all of the responses.

Cool resources – This is a place for my students and I to post articles, websites, blogs, news stories, etc that are relevant to the course. As an instructor I try to post to this forum about 8-10 times throughout the semester. This is a chance for students to also post cool resources they may come across in their research and coursework that may benefit the rest of the class.

Announcements – I post a weekly statement to students in this section. That weekly announcement tells them exactly what is due for the week and includes any course updates. I also send this out as an email. This helps keeps students on track so that they do not feel lost in the course. I find that sending an email and posting to the forum is a must.

Social forum – This is a place where students can post anything – course related or not. This forum usually does not see that much activity however when questions are asked they are usually very important. For instance, students may ask about certifications and such that may not be relevant to my class but are important for all students in my program. Another example might be resume help. Important topics but there may only be 2-3 for a whole semester course.

Introductions – I have all students introduce themselves. I also ask them to post a picture of themselves. This way it puts a face with a name and makes the class more personable. In this introduction I ask them the following: goals, where they live/are from, experience, and ask them to tell us something fun/exciting about themselves. They usually have fun with this.

Discussions – This is where the activities take place. Each week I have students complete activities in my classes and discuss them. I try to stay away from traditional discussion questions as a primary assignment as I find that students feel they are boring. So instead I will ask them to choose a research article and review, create a presentation on a topic, create a table comparing and contrasting, or even create a screencast or video. These activities get at the same type of learning (or deeper) that I would get from discussion questions but are a bit more fun. I try to make a different activity for each week of my course. Students then are usually required to post several times to their classmates.