This post was co-authored with Elizabeth Alderton, Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.
We have all done it: "participated" in a face-to-face discussion, nodding along in agreement, but not really present. Many of us have sat in discussions, afraid to throw in our two cents because we might sound silly. On other occasions, we have had a fantastic idea to share, but the conversation passed by before we had a chance to contribute.
If it happens to us, it also must be happening to students in our classroom discussions. Not all students are in sync!
Blending online social learning opportunities, like asynchronous online discussions, into your traditional face-to-face classes can be beneficial to your students. According to Baird and Fisher, in an educational setting, "social software technologies can work together to support learning and foster community and interaction in the online and blended classroom" (2006,p.24). Many districts provide teachers and students access to a classroom management system (like Blackboard or Moodle) with discussion board capabilities. Additionally, free services like Edmodo provide an easy entrance to engaging in asynchronous online discussions. In an asynchronous discussion, people participate at different times over extended periods, instead of all at once, providing an excellent way to extend discussions beyond the traditional class period.
The following common themes related to asynchronous discussions were found in five different action research projects in blended classrooms. Brunsell, Alderton and Lucky Mason-William (2010) explored the use of online discussions with undergraduate teacher education students. Chris Cimino (2009) and Katherine Theobald (2010-2011) used online discussion opportunities in high school biology. During the 2010-2011 school year, Nancy Bryant investigated online discussion opportunities in AP Environmental Science, while Brandon Fritz added online discussion opportunities to a high school Earth Science course. The themes emerged from a variety of different data sources, including interviews, surveys, student writing samples (discussion posts), and teacher observations. The quotes used below are from student interviews conducted in the study and provide a "student voice" showing the benefits of using asynchronous online discussions.
Theme One: Processing Time
Synchronous conversations are often fast-paced. In a face-to-face discussion, students often do not have time to reflect and process information before contributing. Asynchronous online discussions allow students to digest information by reading others' thoughts, processing, reflecting, contributing and continuing through this cycle at a slower pace. According to one student, "I could also compose my thoughts and write what I wanted, whereas I get flustered or confused in class." A different student said, "Reading others' posts helped contribute to my own ideas and combine them into one. And they made me refine my own ideas better." Another student commented, "The weekly discussions online helped me to talk things out and solve problems. It not only helped with explanations, but they gave me more time to think and plan . . . . I had more time to look things up on Google and base my opinions on specific things using what I found along with what others thought. They also helped me be more open-minded." In fact, Chris Cimino's study found that almost all of his students conducted extra research on the web while participating in the discussion.
Theme Two: Anxiety Reduction
Many students are reluctant to share their thoughts in large group face-to-face discussions. However, the extra processing time provided in asynchronous discussions can help students minimize anxiety. For example, one student stated, "I'm a little shy in the classroom, but I can read [online] other comments and use theirs as a sample for writing my own." Another student commented, "I feel like I talk differently online because I can compose my answers. I knew I wouldn't sound stupid, and it gave me time to edit my thoughts before sharing."
The addition of online discussion opportunities in a traditional face-to-face classroom can help establish a stronger classroom community. One student stated, "If other people are on the site to share views and work, it makes you more comfortable to do the same thing," and continued, "when you're in a community there is a feeling of comfort that arrives . . . it is easier to learn when you feel comfortable in your surroundings." Cimino's study saw dramatic results in the impact of online discussion on his classroom culture. In classroom observations before the introduction of blog discussions, only 17% of students participated in face-to-face classroom discussions. A few weeks later, 72% of students participated in class discussions. One student explained why she started participating more by saying that the online discussions helped her become more confident: "I was no longer afraid to look stupid."
Theme Three: Size Matters
Some of these studies found that the size of online discussion groups is important. Although there is not one right group size, it is important to find the proper balance. A critical mass is needed in order to have a vibrant discussion. However, having too many participants in one group can become overwhelming and lead to incoherent discussions and feelings of being disconnected. It seems that a group size of 7-10 works well. If your students post frequently, use the lower end.
Theme Four: The Prompt Matters
In her study, Nancy Bryant stated one of her biggest insights as, "The format and topic of the prompts influenced the amount of internalization for the students, as well as impacting the amount of self-directed research the students were willing to initiate. When the student had some control over their topic and format, their participation and quality of posts increased. The students asked more questions of one another and also generated more quality responses." As a teacher, you need to strategically think about the type of prompts you use. Brunsell, Alderton and Mason found that student-led discussions resulted in the most interaction among students. There were a greater proportion of responses and follow-ups to initial posts. However, teacher-led discussions were more "on point." Well-crafted (open) questions led to more responses that exhibited higher-level thinking, while closed questions (an obvious right answer) stifled discussion. Finally, reflective prompts often led to surface level analysis with few follow-up replies. In order for students to effectively reflect, they need lots of practice and modeling.
Example Prompt Types: (Question Type: Example)
- Teacher Led: "As you read these two chapters, identify one or two quotes that really stick out for you. Write a discussion post in the Week 1 area that explains why you selected these quotes. Also, include a question related to this week's question work that you are interested in learning more about."
- Student Led: "This reflection is up to your group -- the first person to post is the leader who starts off the discussion. Everyone else should participate in the discussion with at least two postings throughout the week."
- LAW (reflective): "Please write a reflection about what you personally learned from this experience, looking at the list you originally wrote, and then what you learned about strategies. Please implement LAW: L = what you learned; A = how does it apply to you, your content area, your classroom; W = what are you wondering. Please go back and respond to the person who posted a reflection before you and the person who posted after you."
Blending online discussion opportunities into your face-to-face instruction is an excellent alternative to traditional homework, also complementing and improving face-to-face discussions. It gives all students the opportunity to thoughtfully engage with ideas, and with each other.
Note: Chris, Katherine, Nancy and Brandon completed their action research studies as part of the graduate work at Montana State University.