A More Authentic Online Discussion

03.06_a-more-authentic-online-discussion

Discussion forums have brought both promise and disappointment to online educators. They promise to allow all students to lend their voice to a discussion without worry of being interrupted or slowing down the class. But they often degenerate into places where students repeat one another and make only perfunctory comments to satisfy the bare minimum discussion requirements.

It is easy to blame students for not taking advantage of the affordances offered by online discussion, but in reality, much of the blame lies with the format that online discussion has used. The traditional online discussion adopts a model that is far afield from a real discussion, and it should come as no surprise that it often fails to generate vigorous debate. Commentators have suggested various alternative formats for online discussion, but these are usually still artificial, guided by a paradigm that is not based in real discussion. I suggest that faculty instead look to real-world discussions to guide online discussion.


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Discussion forums have brought both promise and disappointment to online educators. They promise to allow all students to lend their voice to a discussion without worry of being interrupted or slowing down the class. But they often degenerate into places where students repeat one another and make only perfunctory comments to satisfy the bare minimum discussion requirements.

It is easy to blame students for not taking advantage of the affordances offered by online discussion, but in reality, much of the blame lies with the format that online discussion has used. The traditional online discussion adopts a model that is far afield from a real discussion, and it should come as no surprise that it often fails to generate vigorous debate. Commentators have suggested various alternative formats for online discussion, but these are usually still artificial, guided by a paradigm that is not based in real discussion. I suggest that faculty instead look to real-world discussions to guide online discussion.

Online versus real-world discussion

It is helpful to compare the traditional online discussion format to a café discussion among friends or faculty or to a Discord chat online. One thing we notice is that the topic of an informal discussion is inherently interesting to participants. People generally do not bring up topics that they know do not interest others.

By contrast, many faculty adopt an assignment-based paradigm of discussion in which the goal is only to measure student learning of course content. They ask for mini-essays on the course material, often with the requirement to bring in and cite outside research. This type of prompt is fine for individual assignments, where the purpose is to test each individual student’s understanding of the content independent of others, but not for discussion. Once the first one or two students respond, the rest are left to repeat one another in different words.

Notice how we don’t expect someone to do outside research to participate in a café discussion. People lend their own ideas. That’s what makes it interesting. Faculty require outside sources to teach research skills, but this should be done through individual assignments, not discussion. They also want students to back up factual claims with sources, which is fine, but this desire often overreaches in implementation where research requirements create the belief that students can’t bring in their own thoughts and evaluations.

Another common component of online discussion is the “post once, reply twice” requirement. Students are required to first submit a reply to the original question without reference to other replies and to then post some required number of replies to others.

But again, real discussion does not have participants take turns answering a question as if nobody has said anything before them. Discussion is sequential, with people lending their thoughts in turn, each replying to what has been said before. Every comment takes into account what was said before, and asking students to pretend that nobody has said anything only invites repeat comments. Posting without reference to other posts again reflects the assignment-based discussion paradigm.

Finally, online discussion participation is always required, even if the student has no original thoughts to lend on the topic. This again leaves students having to repeat one another in different words.

By contrast, participation is voluntary in real discussion. People speak up when they have something they believe advances the discussion, and if not, they learn by listening to others. They are not required to speak.

A new model of discussion

A new model of online discussion jettisons the assignment-based paradigm for a discussion-based paradigm that focuses on generating authentic discourse on a topic. First, the prompt is not meant to test whether students did the reading or have them exercise their research skills, those are for assignments. Instead, students are given a thought-provoking question that interests them and they can lend their thoughts to without research.

For instance, after teaching about diagnostic and formative assessments in my course for educators, I ask the following question:

Diagnostic and formative assessments sound good in principle, but can we really expect faculty to change their teaching content on the fly as a result of these assessments? Are they workable in practice?

Notice how I am asking educators to directly challenge much of what they have read in this section of the class. I am not asking anyone to just repeat course material, nor am I assuming that they agree with the course material and asking them to give examples of how it applies to their own teaching. Someone who thinks it is unworkable in practice will just make up something to satisfy the requirement. I am also clearly asking them what they think, not to do research and report what someone else thinks. Any educator will have an opinion on this matter, either based on their own experience or through deliberation on the topic.

Interestingly, I do not get a lot of educators agreeing with the statement. Most recognize the problem, but then offer solutions by suggesting practical ways that the results of these assessments can influence a pre-established curriculum. This leads to quite lively discussion of the matter, as well as the deeper issue about how much a faculty member can personalize a class to the particular needs and abilities of the students given a pre-established curriculum, something that discussions of these assessments almost always leave out.

Second, the new model does not require an original response to the posting. A student might have an original response, but they might instead have interesting thoughts related to others’ responses, and that is fine. They can participate solely by replying to, or building on, what others have said. In this way they do not feel compelled to repeat what others said just to meet the requirement.

Finally, the new model does not require students to participate in each discussion. Instead, students are required to participate in a certain number of discussion, but for the remaining discussions can demonstrate that they have learned from the discussion by writing a summary of it. In it they must distinguish the various lines of thought and how they were developed. This allows students to not only participate in discussions where they have thoughts to lend but also simply listen and learn, like in real life.

As educators, we forget that following a discussion is itself an important skill that needs to be cultivated with practice. Tracking the flow of a discussion can be hard. Most of us instructors have had the experience of being lost trying to follow a graduate seminar discussion but through experience developed the ability to track the contours of a discussion. Now when a colleague asks us about a panel discussion that we listened to at a conference, we give an overview in terms such as, “They focused mostly on X, and seemed uninterested in Y. Whenever someone brought up Z, the panel circled back to X. The most interesting point was . . .”

But students have a hard time providing this kind of overarching summary of a discussion because they have seldom been asked for it. Students will need to be able to follow and learn from discussions at work or in their civic lives, making it an important skill for educators to cultivate.

The promise of equal participation in online discussion has led to a focus on the contribution end of discussion. While that’s important, the learning end has been left behind, as has the passive participant who wants to listen and learn. A new discussion model that focuses on both participation and learning broadens the range of skills students develop in discussion and reduces the number of repetitive postings aimed at fulfilling the participation requirements.