Class discussions are valuable for pushing participants to think more deeply about ideas and defend their thoughts. However, poorly designed online discussions can turn into mundane and tedious renderings of testimonials, folk wisdom, and repetitious speculations. To avoid this, instructors need to provide the right prompts that compel students to analyze and translate their ideas into everyday language. Two strategies that can meet this requirement are online scripts and video analysis.
Online scripts are written as a dialogue between two or more fictitious people that ties to the course concepts. For instance, students in my online special education class had to complete the following script, making sure to translate any professional jargon into everyday language and to clearly explain the concept of special education. The assignment and prompt are posted on the discussion board, and a rubric is attached so that students are aware of the criteria for evaluation.
Dialogue with a Parent on a Specific Learning Disability (SLD)Directions: In this assignment, you will carry out a dialogue with a parent of a child who has been identified as having a specific learning disability. I've started the dialogue, and you are to complete it by writing a script to explain SLD. Pretend that you are the teacher and explain SLD in layman's terms so that the parent understands. DO NOT copy information straight from the textbook; instead, summarize it and say it in your own words.
Your Name: Thank you, Ms. Jones, for coming in to see me today. As you know from our earlier Individual Educational Plan conference, we determined that Bryan has a specific learning disability, and we are here to review his needs and provide him with special education services. We would like him to work with Ms. Blake, our special education teacher. What do you think about him going to Ms. Blake's room in the morning for one hour a day to work on his math?
Jones: Special education? Why does he need special education for a simple learning disability? Every child will have a problem now and then. I didn't do well in math either, but I never had to go to a special classroom. Isn't that for children who are retarded? My son is not retarded. (Note: the inappropriate word “retarded” was used rather than people-first language to create a realistic scenario to provoke students into an advocacy role).
(Student continues dialogue.)
Online Video Analysis
A second strategy to prompt discussions involves the use of short video clips found on YouTube, TED Talks, or PBS. Online videos are excellent tools for helping students to refine their understanding of core principles. Short video clips can be used to help students unpack misconceptions about particular issues or concepts. Students can also learn how to critically evaluate video clips that have competing messages.
However, without an opportunity for students to share their analysis with others, videos can become perfunctory and simply entertain rather than educate. I use videos posted as assignments with a discussion prompt. On one assignment, the students might determine and review the authority of the site or author. Questions include the following: How much expertise or training does the authority have on this subject? Was the authority in a position to have good access to pertinent facts? Is there good reason to believe that the authority is free from biases or distorting influences? Does the authority have a reputation for making dependable claims?
On another video analysis assignment, the students might search for clues to locate and assess fallacies in reasoning. They look for personal attacks on a person or his or her background instead of the person's ideas, or diversion tactics meant to draw attention away from the issue. Reasoning fallacies can also be revealed when the author presents a false dichotomy, assuming that there are only two alternatives to a problem. Media can gain students' attention quickly, and instructors can make it meaningful by asking students to connect the video content to their current readings, their own experiences, and the larger world.
Online discussion plays a significant role in the cultivation of deep thinking, but discussions must be structured in such a way that students become engaged in the conversation and make meaningful connections that guide them toward the essential principles of the course. Online scripts and video analysis push students toward analyzing and translating information rather than simply recalling facts.
Nancy Stockall is a professor of education at Sam Houston State University.