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Start Having Authentic Online Course Discussions

Do you often feel frustrated with the way discussions in your online course end up? Is everyone repeating the same thing? Are you reading essays in discussion forums, rather than genuine conversations about the topic? Consider changing your mindset and approach to course discussions through a new discussion pedagogy, that leads to authentic course conversations!

Typewriter with cacti.
Three ASU instructional designers, Abigail Smith, Steven Maierson, and Sarah Prosory, teamed up for a recent webinar to review where we are at with current online course discussion boards, the typical pedagogy that goes along with them, and why it is inadequate. Then they shared a new approach and tool to make discussions become authentic conversations that lead to better student engagement.

Where We Are With Course Discussions

Let's face it, online discussions are not the same as face-to-face discussions in a classroom. We hear often that "the magic is gone" in online discussions, and they are not interesting but more of a long drawn out one-sided paragraph that says the same thing someone else already said, followed by another student saying, "I agree."

Now, face-to-face discussions are not perfect either. They are often not equitable, because quieter students tend to get lost in the shuffle. Typically the same few students speak up. Also, they are difficult to grade effectively, relying on subjective memory as to whether or not a student participated.

So discussions in the online realm, try to make up for the lack of in-person "magic" and focus on making sure that everyone participates equally, otherwise it isn’t fair. All students have to make an original post. And all students have to respond to one other classmate. 
This causes students perform for the instructor, instead of engaging with each other. And this loses the informal, unique engagement of a live discussion!

Standard Discussion Pedagogy

What we currently witness happening in online courses is the Standard Discussion Pedagogy (SDP) which is a term coined by Yellowdig.The outcomes for this format of course discussion often creates formulaic and limiting conversations.

Journal open with the words written, "am I good enough?" in black ink.The focus is on assessing a student’s responses, and causes academic essays to be written with citations. This does not align with the more casual tone of real discussions. There is more pressure, which causes less engagement. Academic essays are good for a different type of assessment, found in an assignment or even a peer review… but let’s not confuse them with discussions or conversations. If what you’re going for is that “magical” experience we see in face-to-face classes, where the discussion flows and connections are made, essays are not the equivalent.

Also SDP’s focus is usually on getting the “right answer” instead of engaging in a process that is often messy. Students focus on “what” instead of “how.” Information retrieval during learning is just as important, which is what a conversation provides. 

We know most instructors are dissatisfied with this pedagogy but don’t know how to change it. So we are suggesting a new frame of mindset and approach!

A New Discussion Pedagogy

How can we change the approach from the current format, the Standard Discussion Pedagogy, to be more engaging? In order to develop a process, we should consider what we want to see in discussions:
  • Rich student interactions
    • Increase interaction by rewarding commenting, focusing less on what’s being said and more on how much conversation is taking place.
  • Lateral thinking
    • Through a dialogue, students can connect ideas to personal experiences, and prior knoweledge.They are encouraged to make inferences and connections with content.
  • Student satisfaction
    • Encourage more active usage that rewards participation and engagement instead of hitting specific parameters and talking points.
  • Process over product
    • Focus less on the product students are creating and more on the discussion around and about the topics. This enables a deeper learning where application can begin to take place as misconceptions are addressed and meaning making begins to happen in place of surface level understandings.

How to Implement The New Discussion Pedagogy

We suggest aiming for the following:  
  • Open-ended conversations.  Posts should be related topical, but let students talk about what interests them. This activates authentic learning.
  • Quantity over quality. In a typical online discussion, the frequency in which students interact with each other is very low. Aim for a higher number of interactions, to build community and trust, even if it means letting go of the need for the responses to be paragraphs of academic jargon. Often the best ideas arrive after the common ones are shared first.
  • A single continuous board, instead of weekly segmented boards. 
  • Prioritize listening as much as speaking. Online this is shown by reactions and typed responses. Students demonstrate their attention to other students, not just airing their own opinions then logging off.
  • Emphasize fewer original posts and more responses to keep conversation threads progressing.
  • More short posts are better than fewer long posts. Ten 40-word posts is more engaging than one 400-word post. 
  • Allow creativity, multi-modal interactions (images, videos, graphs, etc.), and flexibility. Let students have some fun and express themselves!

Yellowdig Engage Facilitates Improved Course Conversations

Two people sitting and smiling.

You can achieve many of the objectives of a new discussion pedagogy by using standard tools, such as Canvas, in creative ways. But we think Yellowdig Engage is worth consideration, because it is intentionally and explicitly built to support this more dynamic model. With the older tools, you will be fighting them, but with Engage you’ll be using it as it was intended, so there will be less friction. Yellowdig Engage encourages:
  • Open-ended conversations- no need to micromanage. This also fights against the standard discussion pedagogy, and makes it difficult to fall into that old model.
  • Quantity of posts, giving students a place in the course community
  • The digital version of “listening” by rewarding responsiveness
  • Allows many forms of expression, beyond just the typed word. Emojis, videos, giphys!
Yellowdig Engage does this by focusing on:
  • Single-board, with the use of "tags" that can help filter topics or subjects.
  • Incentives that are structural. This enables autonomy and provides students with a stake in the health of the community.
  • Each week students’ points begin again. So they have to go back in regularly to earn their points back. It feels somewhat like a fun game, especially with the progress bars and colorful graphics. Plus, they are curious what others are talking about- don’t want to have FOMO (fear of missing out).
  • The points system is not transparent, and that’s the point. Obscuring the points slightly helps students focus more on the conversations and less on doing the bare minimum to pass.

Next Steps

We see how face to face conversations can be messy yet online discussions can be boring! We know unfortunate outcomes of the current standard discussion pedagogy, such as they are often formulaic with everyone responding the same way, and the student performing for the instructor. We believe in changing our mindsets, focusing less on the product students are creating and more on the discussion around and about the topics. We have developed a new approach to course conversations that include open-ended discussions, and provide rewards for listening. 

Are you interested in changing the way your course approaches discussions?  Contact us at! We are happy to chat about how to better engage your students in authentic online course discussions!


Post Author:

Sarah Prosory is an Instructional Designer within the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University. She has worked in higher education for over ten years, supporting faculty in law, engineering, and biological sciences. Her experience includes assisting faculty with in-person, blended, and hybrid courses, as well as making the leap to fully online courses. She provides training to faculty and teaching assistants on how to use educational technologies, and shares best practices in course design to improve the student experience. She also teaches online for ASU's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.


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