Recent conversations about online learning have centered on ways to create dynamic online courses where students and instructors are engaged (Page et al., 2020). Online discussion forums are spaces where engagement happens. Here, instructors use feedback to motivate students, stimulate conversation, and encourage deep learning (Mazzolini & Maddison, 2003). Yet, when instructors feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of commenting needed, their teaching can feel repetitive and robotic which is disheartening for everyone (Page et al.).
Feeling overwhelmed and uninspired can be signs of burnout (McCann & Holt, 2009). Engaging in online discussions without immediate social cues from students may amplify teacher burnout. Further, the time-consuming nature of writing comments forces instructors to push aside more creative aspects of their professional lives that could alleviate feelings of burnout, such as professional writing, designing curriculum, and conducting research.
So what can be done? How can online instructors avoid burnout and reclaim joy in their work? Research identifies several coping mechanisms for burnout, including seeking out social interactions, self-care, and shifting perspectives (Valcour, 2016). In this article, I discuss how instructors can shift their perspectives to energize their teaching. Rather than seeing our roles as primarily commenters and feedback givers, I explore ways to reenvision ourselves as qualitative researchers, artists, facilitators, and coaches. In adopting these new roles myself, I was able to stave off burnout, engage students in new ways, and keep my instruction fresh.
Online instructor as qualitative researcher
One role an instructor can play on a discussion forum is that of a qualitative researcher looking across student posts for common themes and anomalies in the larger discussion. Instructors can use a thinking process akin to constant comparative analysis (Glaser & Straus, 1967) to help them identify themes as they read through the discussion forum. With this method, the emphasis of the instructor’s work is on reading, evaluating, and identifying trends rather than on commenting on each and every student post. Although this process can be done in a variety of low-tech ways, such as reading and taking notes, to help facilitate this process, instructors can tag posts with keywords or categories using features built into learning management systems. The tags can help instructors identify larger themes and help students see evidence of a particular theme. After identifying the key trends, instructors can generate a written summary post, audio file, video, or email where they discuss their findings, including examples of tagged posts to support the themes. This method of analyzing and responding to discussion forums can be particularly useful if students will later return to the specific topic being discussed to write a larger paper.
Online instructor as artist
Using visuals to display trends or main points in a discussion forum is a related way for teachers to reconsider their teaching role online. One way to create visuals is through word clouds. If students are asked to use readings and course materials to define a particularly tricky concept, the instructor could copy and paste students’ responses into a freely available word cloud generator that automatically displays the most-used words. Students could then look at the word cloud and work together to generate a working definition to be used throughout the course. For example, at the beginning of a class focused on technology, students could use readings and other course materials to generate an initial definition of the word “technology” in a discussion forum. After the initial posts, instructors could enter the responses into a word cloud generator and display the results for students to analyze. Students can work together to analyze the word cloud and then refine and extend their initial definitions of the word “technology” based on their analysis.
Sketchnoting, or visual notetaking, is another way to be visually creative in synthesizing student discussions, highlighting key ideas, breaking down difficult concepts, and illuminating connections and anomalies among students’ posts. Using sketchnoting, instructors could create a digital or pen-and-paper sketch to capture a weekly discussion and invite students to comment on the sketch.
Online instructor as facilitator
Giving students the opportunity to lead a whole or small group discussion each week is another effective way to make online classes more student-centered, create more engaging discussions (Barran & Correa, 2009), and keep feedback in discussion forums manageable for instructors. There are many ways to implement student-led discussion online. In my class, I created four small groups of students with one discussion leader per group per week. The discussion leaders met with me via a videoconferencing app the week prior to their assigned discussion leader week. The leader was responsible for generating discussion questions and leading discussion throughout the week by responding to the students in the group. At the beginning of the week, the discussion leaders introduced themselves and posted the discussion questions they wanted the students in their group to discuss in response to the assigned readings. Throughout the week, the leaders were responsible for checking the discussion thread for their small group on a daily basis, responding to their group members, and encouraging more discussion. Student-led discussions shift the role of responding to each thread away from the instructor, allowing them to take a different role as a reader, observer, and facilitator. At the end of the week, discussion leaders can share a brief summary of their discussion with the class, and instructors can choose the extent to which they comment on these summaries or add a commentary of their own.
Online instructor as coach
Asking students to reflect on their “muddiest,” or least clear, point during the week is a common and useful strategy for helping students think about their learning and can help instructors identify difficult concepts or misconceptions (McGuire & McGuire, 2016). At some point during the week, instructors can ask students to report back the least clear points, whether from a course reading, video, podcast, or discussion. Students can share these privately as an assignment or survey response, or they can share with the class in a shared document or wiki. Both methods of collecting the muddiest point make it easy for instructors to respond either individually or to the whole group, helping students revise or expand understanding as necessary. After collecting student responses, instructors can begin their work as coaches, responding to students’ questions, concerns, and needs for clarification and providing additional support, practice, and direction as necessary. This is different from responding to discussion threads because students lead the discussion with their questions and instructors differentiate instruction according to students’ needs.
It’s easy to let technology dictate the type of teaching that happens in learning management systems. Instructors can quickly fall into the trap of posting a discussion question, waiting for students to respond, and then commenting on or grading each individual post. Doing this week in and week out can be draining, cumbersome, and uninspiring for both instructors and students and eventually lead to burnout. But taking a step back to change our perspectives and reimagine our roles in online classes can lead to more innovative and energized teaching and learning. In redefining your role, you may find, as I did, ways to reenchant your teaching, which in turn can translate into more engaged and inspired students.
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Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Aldine.
Goh, C. F., Leong, C. M., Kasmin, K., Hii, P. K., & Tan, O. K. (2017). Students’ experiences, learning outcomes and satisfaction in e-learning. Journal of E-learning and Knowledge Society, 13(2), 117–132. https://doi.org/10.20368/1971-8829/144
Mazzolini, M., & Maddison, S. (2003). Sage, guide or ghost? The effect of instructor intervention on student participation in online discussion forums. Computers & Education, 40(3), 237–253. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0360-1315(02)00129-X
McGuire, S. Y., & McGuire, S. (2016). Teach students how to learn: Strategies you can incorporate in any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation. Stylus Publishing.
McCann, J. T., & Holt, R. (2009). An exploration of burnout among online university professors. Journal of Distance Education, 23(3), 97–110. https://www.ijede.ca/index.php/jde/article/view/620
Page, L. Hullett, E. M., & Boysen, S. (2020). Are you a robot? Revitalizing online learning and discussion boards for today’s modern learner. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 68(2), 128–136. https://doi.org/10.1080/07377363.2020.1745048
Noreen Moore, PhD, is an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Writing Studies, Rhetoric, and Composition at Syracuse University. Her research interests include reading and writing pedagogies, peer revision, revision, technology and writing pedagogy, and online learning. Her work has appeared in Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Journal of Educational Technology Systems, Journal of Writing Research, and Journal of College Literacy and Learning.