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Section 4.2 Facilitating Effective Online Discussions

Alfred Rovai (2007) asserts online courses must be designed to facilitate forums that engage students in productive discussions. The online classroom design should contain discussion forums that foster a sense community. “The online instructor plays a crucial role in maintaining and sustaining students’ motivational levels” (p. 79). Discussion forums provide students the opportunity to interact with one another, fostering group cohesiveness and camaraderie. The instructor should have a presence, but should not dominate the discussion forums. The following components can help the online instructor construct effective online discussions (Rovai, pp. 79-83):

  • Motivation – Oxford, Young, Ito, and Sumrall (as cited by Rovai, 2007) report the single most important predictor of student success in distance education is motivation. Some students will be intrinsically motivated to participate; others will not and will require extrinsic motivators to participate. Consider making participation in discussion forums 10-20% of the overall grade. Rovai (2003) found benefits from grading course forums: 1) greater participation, and 2) increased sense of community. The online instructor plays a crucial role in maintaining and sustaining students’ motivational levels by planning structures and facilitating interpersonal events.
  • Clear Expectations - The course should provide students with clear expectations of what is considered active participation in course discussions. By clearly conveying expectations, students will be able to better judge their behavior and engage in self-reflection and self-regulation. Provide a participation rubric describing the ground rules for online discussions and the quality of postings at the beginning of the course. Table 4.1 below presents a sample discussion rubric.
  • Socio-emotional forums – Discussion forums can have the goal of nurturing a strong sense of community within the course. It is useful to have a separate discussion forum available where students can meet electronically and discuss topics of mutual interest so personal relationships can be developed. In an online course where students do not have the opportunity to socialize in a socio-emotional forum, socializing leaks into and diverts task-oriented forums. Many instructors label such forums as the “Water Cooler,” or “Break Area,” or “Student Lounge.”

    Provide a description for the forum such: “This break area is an informal place where we can introduce ourselves and become acquainted with each other. It is also a place where we can hang out and shoot the cyber-breeze about any topic we choose by creating threads and posting messages.” The instructor should post the initial message of welcome in this forum and elicit socio-emotional responses.
  • Task-oriented discussion forums – Provide the opportunity for students to interact authentically with contextualized discussion topics, and reflect in forums. For large class enrollments, use group forums rather than class-wide forums. Groups of no more than ten students are recommended; otherwise, the discussion forum can become unwieldy and difficult to grade.

    • Developing Discussion Questions: O’Neil, Fisher, and Newbold (2009) recommend the following methods for developing open-ended questions as the primary method for stimulating discussion and assessing student learning. The discussion questions should be based on the desired learning outcomes. Most faculty use approximately two to four discussion questions depending on the course schedule for the week. The questions must be thought provoking and relevant to student learning.
    • Create questions in which there is no right or wrong answer. The questions should enhance higher order thinking skills such as constructing, analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing, and serve as a means for the instructor to assess student learning and understanding of the issues. The instructor should model this type of questioning, furthering the discussion in a substantive manner, providing source citations and examples. A poor or minimal response to a question could indicate student thinking has not been stimulated or the student has not been motivated to respond. To help facilitate the discussion and engage the student in this instance, the instructor should comment by asking for more information or asking the student to share some aspect of their professional expertise (pp. 100-101).  
  • Student-student interactions – Encourage students to thoughtfully post to others postings. Require students interact. Do not allow students to lurk. Generate motivation for students to engage in productive discussions. Options include grading online discussions (see Table 4.1), allowing students to choose discussion topics, and contextualizing discussions by drawing on diverse learner backgrounds and perspectives of a topic. Provide students with examples of constructive feedback.


Table 4.1 Online Discussion Rubric (Rovai, 2007, p. 80)

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