Exploring Strategies for Facilitating Effective Online Discussions
Do you like to incorporate discussion in your classroom? If you are like most teachers, you do. However, translating discussions into a remote learning setting can be difficult. Let’s look at the challenges with effective online discussions in a remote learning setting, norms for effective discussions, and resources for classroom discussion in remote learning.
There are several common problems with classroom discussion:
These problems occur whether you are in an in-class physical setting or in a remote one. It’s important to build structure and scaffolding into class discussions to address these concerns.
If we want to incorporate effective online discussions into our classrooms, we cannot assume that it will automatically happen. In addition to teaching students what to discuss, we need to provide and teach a set of norms explaining how to discuss, which should be a part of your overall remote classroom climate. For primary students, choose three to four norms that are easy to remember and post them with pictures or symbols for visual cues. For example, for younger students, you might use Listen to Everyone, Wait Your Turn, Mistakes Are OK.
Next, we need to look at norms that facilitate effective online discussions in a remote learning classroom. Rhonda Bondie, in her article “Practical Tips for Teaching Online Small Group Discussions,” provides helpful information regarding online discussions. She notes the value of virtual breakouts, where students use Note Catcher or Google Docs to organize discussions, and where the teacher can facilitate the discussion using pre-assignments and a feedback survey.
Other structures that are important include posting directions and key resources in a place that is easily accessible, encouraging students to post videos or other visuals to support the discussion, and incorporating surveys into the discussion.
As I talk with teachers, they have noted other important norms related to online conversation. Discussions may take place orally during live video sessions, or they may be in writing. When using Google Meet, Zoom or other similar applications, you’ll want to establish clear guidelines for remaining muted and raising a hand to speak.
In an asynchronous setting, students need instruction on how to have a virtual conversation and exhibit the behaviors of a responsible digital citizen. For examples, students will need to learn how to provide timely responses, which should both validate responses and challenge the response when appropriate.
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Rigor in the Remote Learning Classroom
Another issue during online discussion is teacher involvement, which is critical. You’ll want to listen to the discussion and add feedback, but it’s important to structure how you do so. I was very clear with my graduate students that I would listen, but that I would not post a response on their written comments immediately. I learned early on that if I immediately posted a response to every comment, it limited the students’ comments. They waited to see what I would say before they replied. I would comment throughout the discussion, but after I gave students “electronic wait time.”
Finally, although there are a wide range of tools that can facilitate discussion, some are particularly helpful with classroom discussion. One option that allows for open conversation in a secure, private chat board is kialo.com. This platform allows teachers to pose a question or idea and have students respond with evidence from outside sources to support their thoughts. They can also respond to one another's "evidence" and thoughts, creating healthy academic dialogue. Primarily marketed as a debate platform, it can be used to discuss literature, and scientific hypothesis, or many other content topics. YoTeach is a similar tool that allows teachers to open chat rooms as a whole class or in small groups. This allows for real-time conversation between students, with the ability for the teacher to moderate and redirect if necessary. Flipgrid allows for visible discussion as students create short videos in response to a topic the teacher publishes. Peers can then submit response videos, and students can have dialogue "face to face." Reluctant writers enjoy this option, as it allows them to speak about their thoughts and contribute without their writing skills holding them back. Each of these can enhance student learning.
Effective Online Discussions: A Final Note
It’s easy to assume that effective online discussion cannot be incorporated effectively in a distance learning session. However, with clear norms and structures, and the use of supportive apps and electronic tools, it is possible to use discussions in your instruction.
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