Kicking Discussions Up A Notch

emerilEmeril Lagasse is always suggesting that when cooking you need to “kick it up another notch!”

The same could be said about online discussions.

After a couple of weeks tied up in faculty search interviews and conferences, our Center for Teaching Excellence study group on Community of Inquiry got back together Thursday, and we had a great session on the topic of online discussions. Our focus was centered on two articles we had read:

We continue to circle around the notion of cognitive presence within an online class.  As we have reviewed Garrison’s book, E-Learning in the 21st Century, and articles such as these two, it continues to be clear that a large number of online faculty equate engagement online with online discussions.  My online courses that I teach are discussion based…whether that discussion is in discussion boards, wiki discussions, or increasingly these days, blogs.  One of my go-to books for myself or for when working with faculty is Tisha Bender’s Discussion Based Online Teaching to Enhance Student Learning: Theory, Practice and Assessment.  Tisha rightly notes that online education does not consist of throwing the technology of the day at students and telling them to go learn:

“…we can’t just throw technology at them and tell them to go ahead and use it without a well-defined rationale. And we can’t allow ourselves or our students to be lured by technologies that beckon us seemingly only because of the possibility of a new friendship. No, we need to carefully construct a new pedagogy, an adaptation of the old methods, so as to meaningfully engage students through digital technologies. (p. 66)”

Amen, Tisha!  I am a proponent of online discussions for engagement.

Yet, what is clear in the research is that discussions – left to their own devices – rarely lead to deep learning.

Garrison proposed the Practical Inquiry Model to build off Dewey’s work:

practical inquiry model
Practical Inquiry Model (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2001)

The two articles we reviewed today both had limited studies, but suggest that discussions were good at initiating trigger events and exploration, but were not necessarily effective at creating integration and resolution for students.  As Darabi et al noted in the abstract:

“… the literature indicates that the conventional approach to online discussion – asking probing questions – does not necessarily advance the discussion through the phases of cognitive presence: triggering events, exploration, integration and resolution, which are crucial for deep knowledge construction…the structured strategy, while highly associated with triggering events, produced no discussion pertaining to the resolution phase. The scaffolded strategy, on the other hand, showed a strong association with the resolution phase. The debate and role-play strategies were highly associated with exploration and integration phases. We concluded that discussion strategies requiring learners to take a perspective in an authentic scenario facilitate cognitive presence, and thus critical thinking and higher levels of learning. (p. 216)”

The earlier Wang and Chen article basically dismissed the notion of resolution occurring in discussions, suggesting that resolution would occur elsewhere in the course…or perhaps even in another course or later in life.  We were troubled by that notion.  Personally, if I develop learning outcomes for a module or a course, I would like to design the learning activities to assist students in reaching resolution for their learning.

I do agree with the premise of both of these articles that discussions – left to their own devices – will not naturally lead to deep learning.  That suggests that we have to be mindful of our use of discussions in online courses.  They are not a replication or replacement for classroom discussions.  Crafting good questions and then actively facilitating discussions can potentially lead to the deeper learning outcomes we each desire.

Wang and Chen suggested fairly extensive ground rules:

  • Start dates and Cut off dates
  • Minimal number of posts — You need to comment on at least two other groups.
  • Support your arguments with evidence (established theories, empirical data, thought experiments, etc.).
  • Keep one point per short message
  • If no one answers your posting, you can send invitations to three students for responses.
  • You are not allowed to post before the second deadline.
  • You are encouraged to build on existing ideas by quoting and paraphrasing other people’s messages.
  • You must always reply to comments to your posts
  • If you have nothing more to add, wrap it up nicely with a concise summary.

When Bill Pelz gave the keynote two years ago at our first Online Summit, he noted similar rules.  One of Bill’s rules that I always liked was a requirement that when a student replied to another student, they had to change the subject line to capture the essence of their thought.  You did not see (Re: blah blah) in his discussions – every thread and reply had a different subject line – a technique that could assist with critical thinking.

FBscreenSo, it is incumbent in faculty who use online discussions (no matter the venue) to consider their practice and how they might proactively facilitate the ongoing discussions such that students move beyond trigger events and exploration (to use Garrison language) and develop processes for thinking critically about the subject matter…whatever that might be.  To me, that also suggests that faculty must become more active in the discussions and move beyond counting posts and giving credit.  Discussions need to be carefully crafted to be relevant and authentic for students and faculty alike.  Rubrics for discussions should suggest processes (and grades) for analysis and synthesis of multiple postings as well as processes for metacognition – getting students to think about their thinking.

Online discussions are not replacements for in class discussions.  They actually can be so much more.  Our job as faculty is to kick them up a notch!

As always, push back and let me know if you have problems with my convoluted reasoning!  🙂

{Graphics: Mark Petruska, Garrison, Paul Walsh}


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One thought on “Kicking Discussions Up A Notch

  1. Dr. Watwood,

    Yes, on-line discussion guidelines need to be revisited. An area of feedback for my Fall I course was to revisit meaning ways of ensuring that discussion posts become learning centers. It is frustrating attempting to engage classmates who never respond to your comment(s). We have to get this right!

    Additionally, WATCH OUT for on-line discussion forum CLIQUES. These are individuals who may or may not share an affiliation outside of the class, but seem to consistently respond to each other’s post. This social dynamic hasn’t escaped on-line discussion forums. If we watch and observe, the patterns will emerge.

    At the graduate level, on-line courses must assist students in SYNTHESIZING information not just summarizing, but deeply analyzing and applying a topic. From my observation and interaction with on-line discussions, this aspect is often missing. We harp on the topic at hand, but rarely relate to other issues impacting the topic.


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