Discussion in an online classroom

30 April 2020

With the COVID-19 pandemic, teaching and learning have been turned upside down overnight. At a place like Carleton, where face-to-face teaching and engagement is central to what we do, we don’t have a lot of experience to build on, but Carleton faculty continue to be committed to their students and are working hard to make spring term 2020 courses still feel like Carleton courses in spite of the circumstances. In conversations with faculty over the past few weeks, one challenge that many faculty members have faced is managing discussions in the online environment. In planning for the transition to online learning, the AT/LTC team encouraged faculty not to rely only on video conferencing and synchronous discussions, but to also build in opportunities for asynchronous discussion.

Empty seminar table

At the LTC “quick take” event last week, faculty noted varied success with asynchronous discussion. One of the difficulties with asynchronous discussion is that it doesn’t match the picture in students’ minds of what discussion “should” look like. Tools such as Hypothes.is can be a great way for students and faculty to engage in close reading and “discussion” of texts, but it’s different from working through a text together in a classroom with books in hand. Moodle discussion forums seemed to be hit-or-miss among faculty who were in attendance.  

A general Moodle discussion forum with little structuring of the expectations for participation is not likely to foster the sort of engagement with each other’s ideas and back-and-forth knowledge construction that happen in a face-to-face discussion. At the LTC event, Dev Gupta (political science) shared a model for asynchronous discussions using Moodle forums that is working well for her class this term. Because the class is large, she has split the students up into four groups of eight students, and each group has its own Moodle forum. Each forum is a single threaded discussion. Dev has clearly articulated how many times students must post, and a post can take three different forms: a response to a question, a response to a response, or it can provide an example. Each post must be less than 200 words. Dev’s structure for asynchronous discussion follows recommendations by experienced online educators. Morton Ann Gernsbacher, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin Madison, published an article in the November 2016 APS Observer with five tips for better online discussion boards. Among her suggestions are breaking large classes down into smaller groups for discussion and providing clear expectations about what the types of interactions that are expected. Take a look at Gernsbacher’s article for some additional ideas. 

For those who want to retain synchronous discussions in their teaching, using asynchronous activities (like Moodle discussion forums or Hypothes.is annotation of texts) to foster reflection and engagement in advance of a synchronous meeting is valuable. That asynchronous discussion preparation can allow you to dive in deeper during synchronous meetings and allows you to reduce the length of synchronous discussion sessions. Keeping synchronous discussions shorter can help reduce the fatigue and disengagement that inevitably ensues from sitting in front of a screen for a lengthy period of time.

What tips or tricks have worked for your online discussions this term?