Discussions in online classrooms are a different experience for both teachers and students compared to discussions in traditional classrooms. Traditional discussions are synchronous, so they can be guided in real-time. I often compare it to driving a car. Instructors can change the direction, speed up, slow down, or even stop in response to the input and reactions of students as the discussion progresses. While teachers may map the discussion before it begins, they actual trip may be far different than the one they planned.
Online discussions, in the other hand, are asynchronous activities. Because of this, many educators find it necessary to compose prompts that provide sufficient engagement for students to participate thoughtfully with little input or direction or clarification from the teacher. The planning that results in an effective discussion prompt is more purposeful than what goes into crafting an in-person prompt, and it tends to be iterative–we improve our prompts only after they have been used in class and it is unlikely that we will be able to deploy our improvements until the next term.
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of crafting online discussions is defining prompts and protocols for how students respond to each other. A frequent complaint I hear is “students just respond like they are on Facebook.” My response is usually to think about the direction you give to how they respond. Through our prompts, we can get students to examine and comment on each others’ emerging views, provide evidence to support or refute claims, or examine more deeply the implications of what we claim.
When we do get students to think more deeply about their peers and to comment (publically) about those thoughts and words, we must recognize the risk students are taking. When I add discussions to my courses, I try to limit words and reactions in hopes that we build some community. The message is “we are all here to learn, so let’s communicate in supportive and positive and critical ways.” In later discussions, I try to craft more involved prompts all designed to improve understanding and performances.