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10 Tips for Setting Up Online Discussions with Your Class

by Sheila Pinchin

Are you setting up blended learning in your course?  Will your students be participating in an online discussion board, such as those available on Learning Management Systems like Moodle, D2L, or MEdTech?  Here are 10 tips that may help you get started.

1. Consider size and facilitating. Try to create discussion groups of no more than 15 members.  Try to get facilitators for different groups if possible.  Depending on how many questions, tasks, and how fervent the discussion, a facilitator can be monitoring hundreds of postings. Check into privacy issues when you are deciding who facilitators should be. E.g. If the facilitator is a senior student there may be privacy and authority issues. Ideally the professor would oversee all boards, and be able to "dip" into discussions, and trouble-shoot if a facilitator brings a problem or a fabulous answer forward.  With smaller numbers of groups, the professor may facilitate all.

2. Aim for diversity in groups.   Diversity among group members is great, and it's often present in random groupings. But grouping to represent variety in the students’ work experience is powerful because the students can share their experiences with each other then and learn from them.  For example, if students are placed in work experience settings of rural communities, small cities, large cities, other provinces, farming communities, mining communities, etc., the postings from a variety of work settings will enrich the discussion, if there are representatives from each community in each discussion group.

Why not build in questions about the variety you’ve introduced into the groups?  For example, ask the students to report on the types of injuries that are common in a rural farming community, etc.

3. Maintain privacy.   Students should be cautioned not to mention names of people (patients or staff), or even facilities by name...they can characterize generally: 40 year old male etc...in a rural setting etc...

This protects the privacy of patients and also of staff whose practices may end up being discussed as models, etc.  Caution students that professional demeanour is important in this respect…don’t write what you wouldn’t say…

4. Create a sense of community.   This may be accomplished in many ways:   develop introductory meaningful and fun activities.   Create a “café” where students may gather and chat about anything, including recipes, where they live, etc.   While research has suggested that faculty stay out of the café, many have found it a great experience, especially when introducing the course.   Consider students’ workload so that they rarely feel overburdened.   Assist with time management in the design of the course, so that postings are deeper and “durable.   Give timely and constructive feedback.   Be supportive in your feedback as a model for others.   (See Promoting Online Discussion, another article in this set.)  Have some “break” times in the course where students can breathe, catch up, or just chat with you.

5.  Observe netiquette and maintain professionalism:  Strongly emphasize netiquette (see this link as an example: http://www.studygs.net/netiquette.htm) and reinforce by creating a specific section of the rubric for assessment on tone of voice, support for colleagues on the board and ability to move the discussion forward. This will be extremely important if the students are discussing ethical issues or other controversial issues, but is equally important to establish a climate of positive, supportive learning.  

Ask students to review a posting prior to sending it to check for professional tone.  In fact, advise students to write in a word processing document first, before copying and pasting to the Discussion Board composition text box.  This allows for spell checking as well as building in a pause prior to sending anything. Remember that on most Learning Management Systems, once a message has been sent, only the administrator can delete it.

6.   Assess participation on the discussion board:   Be explicit about what you want to see in the Discussion Board by assigning criteria in a rubric, checklist or scale for assessment of student work.  You can use this rubric formatively, to offer un-graded (or graded for a smaller percentage) comments to further the work of the students, and also summatively, to offer grades and comments at milestones in the course.

7. Prepare discussion board topics and give clear instructions for them.   Set up the topics for the discussion board ahead of time and refer to these topics, using correct wording, in the modules of content. E.g. "When you have completed your consideration of pro's and con's of xxx, post your ideas to 'For and Against' on the Discussion Board."  Use folders or other “containers” for each topic.   Give clear and concise instructions for tasks.  

8. Give the opportunity to practise using the Learning Management System (e.g.MEdTech).  If you have the opportunity to see your students face to face prior to using the discussion board, have the students practise in the classroom while you're with them and have the learning management system in front of you.  If you can’t meet face to face in a blended situation, set up a video, online chat and/or a practice module (all three would be good!) to give students a chance to practice logging in, finding their way around, and posting and replying in a thread. This will save all kinds of trouble-shooting later. And for both situations, just in case:  schedule synchronous chats or keep pre-determined “office hours” for students with questions.  Respond within a short set time period for this module particularly to emails from students in the field.

9.  Be clear about your expectations for participation on the discussion board .  If you want students to respond to others, be explicit about what you consider response to be.  Provide examples of effective response.  (See Promoting Online Discussion, another article in this set.)  If you want students to create or develop something, be clear about all of the criteria for successful participation in this task.

10.  Use sound practice in teaching and learning to develop tasks:   Develop these (types of) tasks:  reflect, read, apply, discuss, apply, synthesize, look back.

Consider tasks that ask students to:

•        Reflect (activating prior knowledge and/or experience) in order to lead into an activity, using methods such as a case scenario, an Anticipation Guide, a pre-test, a series of prompts, or pose a reflective question.

•        Read from the literature around this topic and summarizing key concepts or controversial issues (Use journal articles they can access through WebProxy from home or work placement or web articles from reputable sources, or use a courseware pack of articles printed with appropriate copyright permissions ahead of time.)  Offer guiding questions to accompany the reading.

•        Apply the reflection and reading to a case scenario, or other situated questioning technique

•        Ask students to work together (via email or discussion board) or to respond to each other’s applications on the discussion board

•        Ask students to synthesize learning, by creating something new from their reflection, reading and discussions,

•        Ask students to review the learning, and respond in a journal or log to bring back with them, and/or tie into their ongoing activities

Further Reading:

Berge, Z.L. (1995). Facilitating Computer Conferencing: Recommendations From the Field. Educational Technology. 35(1) 22-30 and http://www.emoderators.com