Tips for Successful Online Discussions

Academic Aims for Online Discussions 

In the last post we discussed how online discussions can incorporate many ideas for enriching a blended classroom. You may wish to explore these ten ideas in the last post. In this month’s post I would like to emphasize how to promote academic focus in student online discussions. Remember that an online discussion is a powerful extension of learning that can go beyond the walls of your classroom.

Teacher Guidelines

When using online discussions with students, be sure to keep your point of emphasis aimed at content standards and 21st century skills, while at the same time aiming to move upwards on the scale of Blooms higher order thinking levels. Questions can be convergent for formative purposes, but also divergent to promote inquiry. Remember that the use of multimedia can promote academic standards while facilitating real and meaningful discussion. The teacher should model proper digital citizenship, constantly monitor student communication, and also provide responses to various discussion threads. Equally important, the teacher should be aware and follow the District AUP (Acceptable Use Policy) and any website terms of use.

When first joining the world of student online discussions, it can be often noted that the student conversation is not always highly academic and sometimes lacks rigorous thought. After all, students have already learned to digitally communicate using social media and they transfer this past practice to the academic classroom. It is important that teachers facilitate proper online communication while promoting digital citizenship. Through proper guidance and digital education any classroom can discover the rich and meaningful opportunities that an online discussions can provide. Please feel free to use these ten ideas below and share with others.

Ten Ideas for Promoting Academics and Digital Citizenship in Online Discussions

1. Keep discussions to Bloom’s higher order thinking level topics including creating, evaluating, and synthesizing.

2. Use discussion as a formative assessment for checking both individual and group understanding. This does not mean it always has to be graded for accuracy. It is done more for teacher planning. Sometimes when using this method, the question maybe lower on Blooms Scale to show remembering and understanding.

3. A discussion can be graded although grading for participation only is sometimes best. In this manner the teacher may post and then ask students to reply to teacher post with a requirement of so many sentences. There could also be a requirement to comment to stated number of posts and other specific requirements.

4. A class discussion is not a emulation of social media but rather it is an academic forum. This should be stated in the discussion question until it becomes acceptable classroom practice and culture. Some things to keep in mind are the following.

  • Proper English grammar
  • Complete sentences
  • No use of text lingo (example; LOL)
  • Any copied and pasted resources or references should be cited by name and link
  • Topic should be adhered to. There should be no outside or side bar conversations
  • Proper spelling of words
  • Thoughts and ideas should be concise and to the point
  • When stating positives and agreements be specific as to reasoning. For example, keep away from ‘yearbook type’ comments
  • Exercise proper Digital Citizenship (see below)

5. Students should practice proper digital citizenship

  • Empathy for others should be practiced with an understanding of an individual’s writing before commenting
  • No use of text lingo (example; LOL)
  • Proper peer critique should be emphasized with an emphasis on caring (example… do not be critical, instead use I wonder statements)
  • All comments should be academic in nature
  • Do not use personal identifying information
  • No plagiarism. Be sure to cite and give credit
  • There should be no bullying or put downs

6. Mix in media when posting to discussions. Do not always make posts text based. Use documents, PDF files, movies, music, sound files, PowerPoints, website links, and images to promote the standards and concepts.

7. Keep on topic. Try to provide discussions that will support the standards and 21st century skills that you wish to emphasize and assess.

8. Use a rubric if providing a discussion for understanding. Make sure your students are aware and use the rubric when making any comments or replies. Possibly include the 21st century skills of Communication, Critical Thinking, Collaboration, and Creativity. Do not try to include all. Break these skills down to individual components.  Example - Instead of asking for the broader skill of creativity, use one component of creativity such as divergent thinking.

9. As a teacher be sure to model by practicing what is required while also commenting on what students write.

10. Encourage students to create their own discussions so they begin to own the process.

Michael Gorman has overseen a one-to-one laptop program and digital professional development for Southwest Allen County Schools near Fort Wayne, Indiana. He has also served as a consultant for Discovery Education, ISTE, My Big Campus, and November Learning; served on the National Faculty for BIE (BUCK Institute); and been an adviser for Tech & Learning magazine. His awards have included district Teacher of the Year, Indiana state Teacher of the Year semi-finalist, Indiana STEM Educator of the Year, Advocate for Johns Hopkins University, and Microsoft’s Global Education Hero award. Mike maintains his award winning 21centuryedtech Blog and also posts articles at T&L and November Learning. 


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