How to use asynchronous discussion forums in your course

Asynchronous Discussion Forums enhance learning as students share their ideas, perspectives, and experiences with the class. Students develop and refine their thoughts through the writing process, and broaden their classmates’ understanding of the course content. Students can participate in a conversation with an entire class or in groups. Discussions can also be created as an assignment for grading purposes (it is seamlessly integrated with the Canvas Gradebook), or simply serve as a forum for topical events.

Why is this important? 

Online discussions are a great way to establish social interaction amongst peers, instructors, and TAs in an online course. It allows for an ongoing dialogue while allowing the flexibility of not having to respond right away (although it may be good to include a due date depending on your activity). Online discussions also offer an opportunity for students to engage more deeply with the content in a (usually) low-stakes way.

There are a variety of ways that online discussions can help in a fully online, blended or traditional face-to-face course. A large amount of online learning can be accomplished through the Discussion Forums. Discussion Forums offer opportunities in creating meaningful interactions between students and instructors or among students while allowing flexibility as to when students post and reply.

Discussion Activities – Broad Uses

Community-building boards

Online discussions can be a great way to help build a learning community or communities among your students. Social learning is key for many students to learn and excel in a course. You can encourage social learning and building learning communities by giving the students space to interact, even if it is not directly related to the course.

Tip: Allow students to take some ownership or autonomy in a discussion space. It is a good way to encourage them to take responsibilities over their educational experience while building meaningful relationships with instructors and students.

Group discussion forums 

Setting up individual discussion spaces based on groups is an effective way to build learning communities and spark interaction whether in a blended or fully online course. Breaking students into smaller groups encourages student interactions as smaller groups. You can use group discussion boards either as supplementary discussion or as the main venue for discussion and engagement in your course.

Tip: Set clear guidelines and expectations about student participation within the group discussion boards. You can allow each group to decide their own way of interaction within the group online discussion or you can assign different roles to the members of each group (e.g., facilitator, note-taker, reporter, etc.) so that all the group participants can make contributions to their own group work in a meaningful way.

Visible assignments 

Online discussion forums are a great way to have students contribute and view more formal writing or thinking assignments. Having students post their assignments to a discussion forum allows other students to see, interact with others students’ assignments, and provide feedback.

Tip: Be clear about your goals of using the discussion forums. Give students clear expectations about requirements, deadlines, and grading procedures.

Supplementary forums 

You can use online discussions to supplement in-class discussions. For students who are reluctant to speak in class or want to focus the content outside of classroom hours, the supplementary board provides another venue to engage with the instructor and other students about course content. Unlike class discussions, online discussions allow time for in-depth reflection and research. Integrating online discussions with face-to-face class time allows the instructor to reinforce key points and encourage engagement with a topic beyond the classroom.

Tip: Make sure to incorporate insight from the online discussion back into the classroom either by bringing up questions/or issues students raised or by incorporating materials from the discussion into your lecture. If you make connections between the online discussions and your in-class activities, students will see the value of the online discussions in enriching their learning.

Discussion Activities – Specific Examples

Question and Answer Discussions: Asking questions of your students, or having them ask questions in an online discussion forum where the whole class can view and respond to them is the most common use of online discussion forums. Students can ask questions about certain topics for the instructor and/or their peers to respond to. Instructors can also ask questions for students to respond directly. This works best for questions that do not have a single answer and can have many viewpoints. Note: it is also possible to set a discussion forum up such that students cannot see each other’s responses until they first post their own response. This helps encourage original thought in initial responses.

Debates: Engage the students in a debate. Debates stimulate critical thinking and can be a highly effective way to actively engage students in research in the online discussions. In this scenario, selecting challenging and debatable topics is important. Suitably developed debates support students’ interaction, critical thinking, and reflection skills, and help students to develop their own points of view regarding a topic or course of study. Here are tips for creating debate moots and teams:

  • Tip 1: Avoid hot-button topics that could prejudice gender, race, religion or ethnicity. You can assign students to pre-read interesting articles that are relevant to the course content.
  • Tip 2: Word the topic as an interesting affirmative statement that is related to the course content (e.g., The government of Canada should abandon the Transmountain Pipeline).
  • Tip 3: Pre-select debate teams by including different student types (e.g., introverts/extroverts or high-performing/low-performing students) as much as possible. Students are assigned to particular viewpoints of a topic and then do some research to form and support their arguments.
  • Tip 4: Discussion Forums allow students to have their own private group discussions. This can be used for debate preparation.

Case study: Students can collaboratively work on a case or other common problem to come up with a solution. You can assign students a case dealing with concepts, tools, and techniques that are addressed throughout the course. Cases are used to learn how to analyze real-world information and make decisions as a manager. Students are supposed to assume the role of the decision maker in the case, apply the course concepts to analyze the information provided, make a decision, and explain why their decisions are the best course of action. Here are the tips to conduct a case using the Discussion Forums:

  • Tip 1: Share a case with your students and ask them some questions about the background of the case in the open discussion forum. Students can get a chance to be familiar with the case and learn from one another through the open discussions before conducting in-depth analysis and making decisions.
  • Tip 2: Students can conduct their case study in their own private group discussions and report their case study to all classmates in the open discussion forum.

Polling: For group projects or peer-reviewed activities, students reply to and like others’ posts. This can be used to fuel student engagement. This idea is useful for large enrollment courses and courses using case study as it is easy to fuel student engagement.

Interview: There are some challenges in scheduling a common time and place to carry out an individual interview. The asynchronous nature of Discussion Forums allows participants to take part in interviews anytime and anywhere.

Simulation: For group and individual activity, you can post problems or exercises that require students to respond to the questions. If you want to assess the individual or group answers but everyone can learn from one another, it will be useful to use the“Post First” feature that requires students to post first before seeing other peers’ posts.

Facilitating Effective Online Discussions

It is important for instructors to know how to facilitate meaningful discussion that engages students actively and promotes a healthy online community. When you consider using the Discussion Forums in your course, there are three key considerations (plans for management, engagement, assessment).

First, do you have a discussion board management plan? Establish ground rules for participation in a discussion (e.g., post quality vs quantity, guidelines for constructive conversation, instructor’s presence, etc.).

Second, what are your strategies that will encourage/motivate students to actively engage in the discussions. There are various ways to motivate and engage students to participate in the discussion forums. Common questions or prompts are grounded in the course content and course materials (e.g., textbook, reading, etc.). The most important thing to consider when creating discussion questions and prompts is to use the questions and prompts as a means of encouraging students to explore course topics at a deeper level. The goal of increasing participation is not to have every student participate in the same way or at the same rate. Instead, it is to create an environment in which all participants have opportunities to learn and in which the class explores issues and ideas in depth from different viewpoints.

Third, are you going to assess student participation done in the Discussion Forums? Grading student participation in the Discussion Forums can be an effective way to promote and encourage meaningful discussion. Deciding whether or not to grade online discussions will depend on the desired learning outcomes of your course.

More information on conducting effective online discussions can be found here: https://er.educause.edu/blogs/2018/11/10-tips-for-effective-online-discussions.

Assessing Online Discussions

Online discussions can have no association with grade. But if you consider assessing student participation in the discussion forums, here are the options (you can choose one or combine the options).

  • Instructor assessment: Instructor assessment is probably the most commonly used assessment. Assess the quality as well as the quantity of the students’ online posts. Using rubrics will allow students to have a clear guideline of your expectations for the quality of their posts. Also rubrics will help you to be more consistent in your grading. Rubrics can also be used for self or peer-evaluation of discussions.
  • Self assessment: Encourage students to think about their own learning and participation, and to reflect on areas of strengths and weaknesses.
  • Peer assessment: Students should feel encouraged by the constructive nature of their peers’ reviews and feedback. Encourage students to be actively involved in providing feedback to their peers.

References 

Hybrid Course Design

How to better design a new hybrid learning course in a time of pandemic

Although the COVID pandemic has generated uncertainty concerning our individual and collective futures, instructors and students must overcome this difficult time to continue providing effective learning experiences. Some professionals have made a distinction between emergency remote teaching and traditional online education. With the increased anxiety regarding emergency remote teaching (I introduce the spring pivot metaphor) and unplanned pedagogical shift, instructors have made extraordinary efforts to ensure that students continue to have convenient access to their courses, their instructors, and to one another. We demonstrated the significance of agility, resilience, and responsibility in high-pressure situations to produce academic continuity. However, in an emergency remote teaching, many instructors have emphasized technical how-tos rather than design related questions and pedagogical what-tos. Additionally, instructors and students who lack experience with blended and hybrid learning have faced a steep learning curve of incorporating technology into their education (e.g., synchronous video technology). Many institutions have decided to continue online delivery for the summer semester and are contemplating various scenarios for the fall semester. How can we leverage the lessons and challenges we gained from this unprecedented time to improve intentional remote teaching for the upcoming semesters?

According to recent survey data by Bay View Analytics, in the emergency remote teaching, 80% of instructors utilized synchronous video technology to deliver lectures or hold class discussions. Some institutions have also mandated synchronous meetings. On the other hand, some institutions avoided synchronous instruction because of its inequity among students and instead recommended they use asynchronous methods wherever possible. Amidst the preparation for another transition from the emergency remote teaching to intentional remote teaching, any required synchronous components need to be strategically designed to accommodate student’s active learning. However, it is unrealistic to rely solely on synchronous delivery, as international students residing in various time zones may be excluded due to time differences. In students’ tweets, students commented about the lack of technical expertise and resources (e.g., bandwidth) they experienced. Further data concerning remote teaching and learning are currently being collected at various levels. The results of the data, as well as the shared lessons and challenges instructors experienced, will be utilized to better prepare instructors for future online teaching. Now is the time to reflect on what we experienced during this pandemic in order to determine a suitable teaching approach that is well aligned with sound pedagogical purposes.

With the affluence of educational technologies, many of us have already practiced blended or hybrid learning. The two forms are often used interchangeably. A subtle difference in the two forms is that blended learning typically emphasizes a combination of an online and offline environment, where students interact with the instructor, the content, and other students through a face-to-face classroom and online space. In hybrid learning, a significant amount of face-to-face time is replaced by online experiences. While blended learning focuses on the combination of offline and online instruction, hybrid learning focuses on a balance that promotes the most effective learning experience.

Modality Traditional Classroom Flipped Classroom(integrating online with traditional face-to-face class activities) Blended/Hybrid Learning (face-to-face time is replaced by online component) Fully Online (emergency remote teaching, intentional remote teaching, traditional distance education, MOOCs)
Key Components 100% face-to-face Online & Offline  Online & Offline (reduced seat time) Synchronous & Asynchronous

Blended and hybrid learning offer lessons and fundamental principles to mitigate the learning obstacles that have occurred within the course of the pandemic.

Flipped Classroom

A flipped classroom is a type of blended learning where students engage with materials (typically video, pre-reading, low-stakes online quiz, OER) outside of class to prepare for an active learning experience inside the class. During class settings, students are typically engaged in group work, hands-on activities, and explorative activities. Key questions for designing a flipped classroom are:

  • What is the best use of classroom time?
  • What content requires additional time for students to thoroughly understand and digest?

To design a flipped classroom, three phases are involved: pre-task, task, and post-task. In the pre-task phase, instructors pre-teach key concepts. In the task phase, instructors play a role as a facilitator who guides student active learning by performing instructional activities. In the post-task phase, instructors elicit and reinforce the topics or problems that posed difficulties for the students.

Blended/Hybrid learning with reduced face-to-face time

Blended/Hybrid learning courses have mandatory face-to-face class time. The alternance of face-to-face class and online class (e.g., week 1: face to face; week 2: online) involves a percentage rating for face-to-face and online learning, for example 50% to 50%. Even though hybrid learning courses have reduced face-to-face time, the focus is to maximize the learning impact of face-to-face time by moving lectures, activities, and resources into online modalities. Here are the key questions for designing a blended/hybrid classroom:

  • How will you integrate face-to-face and online activities cohesively?
  • What learning components are best during face-to-face settings and which are best during online settings?

One important strategy for blended/hybrid learning is to seamlessly connect face-to-face classes and online classes. This can be accomplished by incorporating insights and issues from online classes into face-to-face classes, which enables students to understand where the course is heading regardless of the different modalities.

Fully online (Hybrid learning within fully online environment)

Fully online courses make learning more accessible and flexible. Online participation can be available in both synchronous and asynchronous modes, or in only one mode. Many students in traditional distance education courses are lifelong learners pursuing professional development. Students who live in different time zones or have a full-time job spend most of their time learning online asynchronously. Therefore, it is not surprising to see that many traditional distance education courses are delivered through text-heavy or pre-recorded videos (e.g., MOOCs). However, during the pandemic, students who did not register for traditional distance or MOOC courses are forced to engage in remote courses. Therefore, their motivation for learning and their expectation about their instructor’s teaching is different from what students in the traditional distance education courses exhibit. Key questions for active learning within a fully online environment are:

  • When do you need synchronous space? And for what?
  • What is the right balance (or split) between synchronous and asynchronous learning?

Here are some suggestions to effectively achieve instructor’s presence and student engagement in synchronous settings:

  • Regular office hours (once a week or by-appointment): Office hours will help students open any questions about the course with the instructor. The instructor can provide specific feedback on the course content, assignments, and assessments.
  • Scheduled lectures (weekly or semi-weekly): During these sessions, it is useful for instructors to check in with the students’ progress and readiness to determine whether to move forward and introduce new concepts. Unlike a face-to-face class where instructors deliver all the content, necessary content can be delivered asynchronously at first. The instructor can then use this time to revisit challenging topics that require a high degree of problem-solving skills and key components students should emphasize. When possible, synchronous lectures should be recorded and made available for the students who couldn’t participate in the live sessions. It is advised to avoid having a synchronous lecture for a long period of time.
  • Labs, case studies, or group projects: In large classes, instructors can divide the course into sub-groups and assign learners different roles. Each group can attend labs, participate in group discussions and work on their own group projects in a more intimate and communicative environment.
  • Information sessions (orientation, exam preparation, assignment/assessment review): When instructors want to disseminate specific information quickly, synchronous sessions are useful and effective. When students get instructor’s immediate feedback, their motivation about learning can be promoted.
  • Periodic check-in times (once a month): Instructors can use this time to discuss particular topics that are related to the course or free conversation about various topics students are interested in. This session will boost instructor’s social presence and enhance a sense of community among students.

The right split between synchronous and asynchronous depends on the size of the course (e.g., large enrolment, small size), nature of the course (e.g., performance based, lab, concept focused, etc.), course activities (e.g., group work), and demographic information (e.g., how many students are in different time zones and where the students are). Synchronous learning can be conducted to improve the effectiveness of teaching and learning, enhance instructor’s presence, and improve a sense of community among students.

To optimize accessible and flexible learning opportunities within a fully online environment, it is important to blend/hybrid synchronous and asynchronous modes. It is beneficial for students to engage in hybrid courses with a balanced combination of synchronous and asynchronous interactions, to prevent them from having a dichotomized view about synchronous and asynchronous modality. A balanced hybrid course will also create an engaging, motivating, and active learning environment. No matter where the teaching and learning take place, the importance lies within the instructor’s active presence with the students.

For inexperienced instructors, designing an online course can be regarded as too simple (switching the course materials to an online format without considering cohesion among the content, activities, and assessments) or too complicated (too many components to consider, for example how to switch learning into a hybrid classroom and how to complete assessments digitally). Here is a list of ideas that can be considered during the planning stage for designing a hybrid learning course within a fully online environment. The components on the list are not requirements so instructors can decide what they need depending on their specific goals of the course. Use the checkboxes to the left of each component to identify whether your course contains that particular item, options of technology, and consider how it is delivered (in both synchronous and synchronous modes or in only one mode).

We do not know how long we must cope with this disruptive time. Even if we are better able to plan and deliver a well-designed hybrid online course for the upcoming semesters, students will still miss the in-person learning opportunities they would have otherwise had. Not only do students learn from class, but also from various social and cultural engagements in their daily life. Particular to international students, authentic social and cultural experiences in their communities enhance their contextualized and realized learning. The experiential learning opportunities that may be lacking within remote teaching needs to be addressed. Some projects have demonstrated that virtual and augmented reality can be a substitute for real-life experiences. Currently, we blend our strategies, approaches, and technologies, with pedagogical purposes in order to fill gaps and overcome existing obstacles during this time of pandemic.

References

Cynthia Golden, “Remote Teaching: The Glass Half-Full,” Transforming Higher Ed (blog), EDUCAUSE Review, March 23, 2020.

Doug Leaderman, “How Teaching Changed in the (Forced) Shift to Remote Learning,” Inside Higher Ed, April 22, 2020.

George Veletsianos and Royce Kimmons, “What (Some) Students Are Saying about the Switch to Remote Teaching and Learning,” Data Bytes (blog), EDUCAUSE Review, March 23, 2020.

Rajiv Jhangiani, “Pivots, Pirouettes, and Piques: Gracefully Managing the Anxieties of Remote Teaching and Learning,” KPU Teaching and Learning Commons (blog), April, 17, 2020.