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Teach Online:
Design Online Interaction

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Suggestions for Enhancing Online Interaction and Engagement

One of the ways that technology is expanding opportunity for learning is by extending the classroom through online interaction, or discussions. Asynchronous interaction does not occur in “real time,” but are discussions that take place where prompts, questions, responses, replies, and comments can be added by participants over time. Online forums are very useful in extending learning opportunities beyond the classroom, but facilitating online dialogue is not necessarily intuitive. Most of the suggestions presented below are for asynchronous discussions, though many are also useful for synchronous forums as well. Here are suggestions to increase student interaction and learning in your online discussions:

Require participation Communicate expectations as to acceptable quality and quantity of participation.  For example, online learners may be required to respond to the question you (or another classmate) poses and to the responses of at least two other classmates.  You may wish to provide guidelines regarding quality as well. This may be as simple as pointing out that “I agree” is not a substantive comment in an online discussion. Or you may provide criteria, or a rubric, regarding how learners should support their opinions with references to readings, citations, research, or other course materials.

Include a grade for participation. Be clear about how learners can succeed in formal online discussion activities with reference to quality and quantity guidelines, as well as requirements for timeliness. Contributing to an asynchronous discussion when it is nearly over can be an unproductive, unsatisfying, and unsuccessful learning experience (though asking a late student to summarize a discussion that has already occurred can be a solution that issue.)

Provide an overview of what is due for each week.  A weekly schedule of tasks can help keep learners organized and aware of what they have to do and by when each week. In addition, requiring learners to post early when course discussions open/begin can promote working as a cohort and help ensure a “critical mass” for getting discussions off the ground.

Make the discussion interesting Asking learners to respond to “known answer” questions is unlikely to generate sustained or deep interaction on a topic. Discussion prompts should be open-ended, related to course learning objectives, and are best when they require learners to further investigate, read, reflect, report, apply, synthesize, support their assertions, before they respond. Questions where there are differing opinions, or some controversy, can stimulate active engagement and interaction.

Participate wisely.  In online discussions learners may perceive an instructor comment as the “official answer” and the discussion can come to a grinding halt as a result. The instructor should resist the temptation to dominate the discussion. Nor should the instructor be absent from course discussions. Instructors can keep discussion on track by asking questions to guide learners to think more deeply about the topic, or to diagnose misperceptions and provide corrective feedback. Ending any post with a question will help keep the engagement, interaction and conversation going, and model that behavior for the learners.

Require a product that is based on, or the result of the online discussion.  A “hand-in” assignment that is based on an online class discussion can help students to synthesize, integrate, and apply what has been discussed.

Keep your tone clear, concise, and conversational. When appropriate, avoid “academese,”,colloquialisms, acronyms, slang, and abbreviations. Precise language and complete sentences provide good models for learners, and encourage appropriate participation.

Structure the discussion. Topics should not be too open-ended, or students may lose focus. One way to structure discussion is through debates. Assigning, or asking learners to choose a position in advance, can be helpful. Other structuring devices include – problem solving, case studies, interviews, panels, brainstorming, summaries, etc.

Have students lead the discussion. Assign learners to post focused, topic-relevant discussion questions, and then lead the ensuing online interactions. It may be necessary to model a few discussions in advance and/or assist the learners to choose appropriate discussion questions in the early stages. Providing a rubric and instructions for this type of activity is essential.

Include ideas, and information generated in discussion on exams. This serves two purposes. It reinforces the importance of learner collaboration, and makes “cheating” much more difficult. If learners need to participate in online class discussions to answer exam questions, they will be unable to simply “copy” from outside sources.

Form Small Groups or Learning Teams. Assigning learners to groups (rather that allowing self-selection) can help avoid logistical problems that inhibit productivity. If you do allow self-selection, establish a deadline for this process (a week to ten days), and intervene and assign groups if the deadline is missed. Small groups can:

  • Develop group presentations
  • Peer review each other’s work
  • Prepare for exams
  • Analyze a case study, etc.
  • Be helpful in breaking up and managing large-enrollment online courses.

Make sure discussions are of a long enough duration to allow full and thoughtful participation. Ten days to two weeks is often required to fully develop and play out an online asynchronous discussion.

Deal with unacceptable behavior via private email. Make sure learners understand expectations. Provide policies regarding conduct, unacceptable behavior, and consequences in syllabus and course orientation materials. Respond immediately to any inappropriate behavior by eliminating any offensive posts, and contacting the individual responsible immediately.

Be encouraging, supportive, timely, and constructive in all discussions, and in all evaluations of the products of discussions. Promote quality participation by publicly acknowledging it. Ask for more detail from learners who submit incomplete, or shallow comments, but do this in a constructive and supportive manner. Provide a examples of exemplary submissions, and a rubric to help learners understand expectations.

If you use synchronous technologies such as zoom or Bb Collaborate make sure to record the session so that those that can’t attend don’t feel left out, or that they missed something, and so that they can catch up and watch it later.



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