The standard blueprint for online student discussions posts is to write an initial response, then reply to two or three of your classmates’ posts. It gets the job done, but we can do better. Discussions in an online course play a vital role in creating substantive interactions, aiming to capture the spirit of discourse in face-to-face settings. Initial posts can be counterintuitive—in essence, they require students to complete small writing assignments individually before giving other students feedback on their work. How can we think outside the box of posting and replying when it comes to these discussions? Here are four considerations for promoting student autonomy while also breaking the online student discussions mold:
1. Ask your students to help shape discussion requirements. Are your students comfortable knowing they’ve met specific requirements (like posting once and replying twice)? Do your students feel confident in their ability to know when they’ve contributed to class discussions in a meaningful way? Would students like discussions to include the entire class or would it be helpful to break discussions down into smaller groups? What criteria do they think needs to be met for a discussion post (and replies) to count as an exemplary post? Discussing with your students the ways they will interact with course material and their classmates, as well as what standards of performance they should be held to in online student discussions, is a worthwhile way to promote student autonomy.
2. Offer choice in discussion prompts. Students are more likely to pursue their work (and find meaning in it) when they are tracking down the questions that interest them, rather than the ones set for them. Give students multiple prompts to choose from, and ask them to respond to one. This way, students won’t feel forced to write about something they aren’t interested in, and they can identify the material and ideas that interest them most. To take this method further, you might ask students to submit their own questions and then select a handful to use every week.
3. Let students choose how to reply. Move away from standard written replies and allow your students to engage in discussions by recording audio replies, video replies, or short multimedia presentations. For example, Canvas has a built-in feature which allows students to record or upload media directly in discussion replies, and there are other external tools, like VoiceThread, that allow students to center the discussion around digital media and artifacts. This approach brings autonomy to the forefront, allowing students to draw on their strengths by responding in a way that suits them best.
4. Offer alternatives to online student discussions. Ask students whether they are interested in alternative methods of interaction, such as collaborating on annotations using a tool like Hypothesis, or creating a Google Doc of shared notes. You could also give students the opportunity to request discussion areas where they can talk about readings or pose questions without the constraints of a formal discussion or the pressure of being graded.
Being open to student input in how online student discussions are driven will help you promote student autonomy while encouraging students to engage with the course material and their classmates in meaningful ways. By working to give students more choices when it comes to online discussions, we can move past the repetitive “I agree” response to more deliberate and purposeful interaction.
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