Bring Meaning to Online Discussions with Intentional Design

Concurrent Session 1

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

As online enrollments increase, instructors struggle to adapt traditional pedagogical practices to the online learning environment. Asynchronous discussions tend to be the standard way of engaging students online, yet this practice has several shortcomings. The presenters share one novel discussion approach that they have used to more fully engage students.


Dr. Melissa Brydon is Program Coordinator of the Special Ed Generalist Graduate programs and co-coordinates the Undergraduate Dual Elementary/Special Education Licensure program at Regis University. The focus of her research is UDL in classrooms and providing supports for students who experience reading and behavior problems. She has presented her published work on reading and behavior difficulties, Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, and differentiated instruction at many national conferences.
Jill Giacomini has been an instructional designer at Regis University since 2012. In her role, Jill enjoys working with faculty to find new ways to create instructionally sound and engaging courses. A particular area of interest is developing sustainable methods to collect student and instructor feedback to continuously improve course quality. Jill earned her MS in Technical Communication and MA in Information and Learning Technologies from CU-Denver.

Extended Abstract

As online enrollments increase, instructors struggle to adapt traditional pedagogical practices to the online learning environment. Asynchronous discussions tend to be the standard way of engaging students online, yet this practice has several shortcomings. The presenters share one novel discussion approach that they have used to more fully engage students.

This session has three primary goals for those who attend:

  1. Participants will discuss ways in which online discussions are utilized within their own Learning Management System, sharing both the advantages and disadvantages they have experienced.
  2. Participants will learn about a novel approach to online asynchronous discussions that has been piloted by the presenters within their own teacher education program
  3. Participants will provide feedback on the piloted discussion approach and brainstorm ways that they could potentially implement the strategy in their own online courses.

The work on this project was born out of frustration from a sense that students who were taking an online version of an eight-week course (UDL: A Framework for Teaching and Learning) were missing something that students were getting in the face-to-face classroom version of the same course.  The presenters (a faculty member and an instructional designer) believed that the way students were being directed to “interact” in the online discussion forums was not providing an equivalent experience to classroom discussion. In fact, their interactions seemed very different.

This observation led the presenters to do a comparison reflection of different criteria across the two methods of student interaction—classroom discussion v. online discussion forum.  Attendees will see how the two methods compared according to type of interactions, how students were assessed, the ways that community-building was employed, the types of discussions that were held, and the size of the groups.

After doing this comparison reflection the presenters took that information, as well as informal anecdotal information collected from discussions over the years with students and the presenters’ own experiences, and identified the following basic challenges with the way the discussion was currently designed in the online course.

  • Students often feel overwhelmed with keeping up with all the posts
  • Posting and reading all the posts is very time-consuming (posting/waiting/responding cycle)
  • Students feel like they have to conduct research before they post a response so they don’t say something “stupid”
  • It is difficult to get to know people with a larger class
  • Instructors often feel like they need to put on their “assessment cap” rather than just sharing and interacting.
  • Students often play the “points game” by seeing how much a weekly discussion is worth and then may decide not to engage at all

In response to these challenges, the presenters decided to make the following modifications to the online course:

  • In Week 1, after students introduced themselves, they were divided them into groups of three to four
  • Students were told that they were only accountable to respond to their own group members for the rest of the course
  • Students were allowed to “look in” on other groups (to benefit from their discussions) but were not to participate in other discussions
  • Discussion was not graded weekly—their discussion performance was only assessed cumulatively at the end of the course with a combination of instructor assessment, a self-assessment and a peer group assessment using a holistic rather than an analytic approach

Feedback was collected in Weeks 4 and 8 to ascertain how the students’ perceived that the modifications were impacting their learning experience. Feedback was also collected from the instructor through a short questionnaire and a debrief meeting with the presenters.

Overall there was a very positive response to small group discussions, from both the instructor and students.  Through the feedback and the debriefing the presenters found that:

  • Grading once at the end, rather than each week, worked well
  • The peer grading process seemed to encourage more engagement due to a higher sense of accountability

The singular drawback to the approach was that if one student was non-participatory, it was a burden for the others in that student’s group. However, the presenters noted that there are always those students who don’t engage for some reason (this problem exists in the classroom as well) and while it must be addressed, is not a problem that is caused by the specific approach.

This preliminary data shows us through the comments, the presence of a sense of familiarity and collegiality that can often be hard to accomplish in online courses. The response was positive enough that the presenters plan to examine the viability of other courses for small group discussion and potentially adapt in a similar way.

After trying this approach initially based on experiential knowledge only, the presenters conducted a literature review to determine what evidence existed to support the use of the revised approach to online discussions. In short, copious research exists to support these practices. A brief, preliminary summary follows.

  • Busy ≠ Engagement .
    Clarke and Kinne (2012) found that students do not equate participation in online discussion groups to feelings of engagement. Instructors felt that because students were posting within the discussion board, this meant they must be feeling engaged in the material. Additionally, when students could be more self-directed in their discussion topics, they reported feeling more positive regarding their engagement.
  • Quantity ≠ Critical Thinking
    Pittaway and Moss (2014), Allen and Clarke (2007), and Dunn and Rakes (2011) stress the importance of students actively taking responsibility for their own learning and setting high standards for student engagement that leads to greater knowledge, understanding and critical thinking
  • Social engagement = Intellectual Engagement = Professional Engagement
    Leong (2011) found that the level at which students interacted with classmates and instructors within the online learning environment was highly correlated with level of satisfaction and perceived learning in the class. Social engagement is an important aspect of learning because it exposes students to other ways of interpreting, deepening, and extending their own beliefs about the course content (Beachboard, Beachboard, Li, & Adkinson, 2011; Teason, Terenzini, & Domingo, 2006). Professional engagement allows students to begin to operate in contexts that will be present after they graduate. They can form ongoing learning communities that are formed via online discussions and networking, thereby laying the groundwork for lifelong relationship building. Students learn to communicate using shared language and professional vocabulary.(Bowen, 2005; Pittaway & Moss, 2014)

One important item of note is that, while highly successful in the test course, the structure will not work the same way for every class. The discussion approach solution created for this course was built around the course’s specific needs. For instance:

  • Each student had an ongoing project (creating a lesson plan) that they were building throughout the course.
  • Each week their discussion was centered around providing feedback to each other on the area of the lesson plan they were learning about and working on that week. 
  • This ongoing exchange of feedback within a small group provided students with many opportunities to build relationships with one another.
  • The on-going feedback project became a structure to help them build their own mini-communities within the course.

In other words, an instructor cannot use a one-size fits all approach for every class--the value is not inherent in the innovative online discussion approach outlined above. Rather, the value is in the intentional design of the discussion to meet the needs of the specific course. This design is a direct result from the reflection process the instructor engages in prior to teaching the course. This process leads to discoveries that can provide insights regarding where modifications are needed.

The following questions can be used as a starting point for an instructor engaging in the reflection process:

  • What is the purpose of discussion in my courses?
  • What am I actually measuring when I assess my students’ performance in the Discussion Forum?
  • Am I authentically engaging with my students in the Discussion Forum or am I more focused on assessing them?
  • Do the strategies I use help my students to achieve what I want them to achieve?

Presentation materials will be made available to attendees including the presentation slides, the Holistic Discussion Rubric, the Instructor Score Sheet (created in Excel for weighting instructor score, self-score, and peer score) and the worksheet students fill out at the end of the course to assess themselves and their peers’ performance.

Additionally, the presenters will engage those in attendance by using an interactive online polling tool called Plickers to better understand the composition of the audience at the beginning of the presentation. The presenters will also facilitate a brainstorming session at the end of the presentation to generate ideas on how the method could be adapted to different environments.