Given the widespread preference for asynchronous low-bandwidth teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, here’s a quick primer on trying to keep some person-to-person interaction in your not-really-designed-to-be-online online course.

In the hopes of being pragmatic, I discuss what I do and why I do it. There are other ways of running online discussion, this is only one example. A more theoretical, yet still highly informative, discussion of running online forums by Ester Trujillo can be found here. Another article with useful tips published recently in Inside Higher Ed can be found here.

The ideas I discuss below approach more of an ideal scenario with plenty of time for planning, but several different ideas here can be cobbled together for a completely serviceable experience for everyone. Lastly, I’ll admit I describe a fairly programmatic approach to running discussion forums, some may feel more comfortable with a more open-ended approach that suits their teaching style.

What software can I use?

All major college and university Learning Management Systems (LMS), such as Canvas, Moodle, or Blackboard, are designed with a discussion forum where students can reply directly to one another.

Other chat-room or messaging software possibilities include Slack, Packback, Flipgrid, or Discord, among many others. Of these, I’ve only used Slack and it’s pretty great. Slack is available as a free desktop app or free mobile app and was designed for collaboration and project management across different groups. Because of this functionality Slack works perfectly well within an educational context where peer-communication is important. Students can interact in “channels” (essentially, discussion rooms) that are set up to handle specific topics, readings, lectures, etc. There is a very minimal learning curve and I know some instructors who prefer Slack over the discussion forums found in their LMS.

Packback is specifically designed for educators, while Flipgrid is a higher bandwidth option for interacting with short videos. Discord is popular among gamers and thus many students may be familiar with how it operates. I’ve also seen some instructors suggest using private Facebook groups, Reddit, or Twitter.

What about basic logistics, like frequency of assignments and due times?

In the past, I’ve had students post before every face-to-face (F2F) class meeting, including during summer sessions that met four days a week. Otherwise, to lessen some of the work burden when teaching a writing intensive course, I would not have students post on days when a writing assignment was also due. In an online environment, it is more likely these discussion posts will form the backbone of the virtual classroom experience and thus will be assigned with regularity.

When I use discussion forums in F2F classes, I use class time to have small group discussions. For online courses, this peer-to-peer interaction occurs by having students post comments on other students’ posts. Because of student workload, I would suggest allowing at least one full day, if not two full days or more for everyone to comment (certainly more than a few hours). For example, if an assignment is sent out Monday, the posts would be due by Wednesday and comments due by Friday. As I will discuss below, I think it is worthwhile for the instructor to provide some comments about the entire discussion at the end of the week, more-so than commenting on every individual student post.

I would also recommend dividing students into small groups (of 3-5 students), either for the duration of the course or for shorter intervals of time. This can be done easily with the software noted above and gives the opportunity to create a better sense of community among members of the small groups. This can also help develop deeper dialogues between students over the long run.

How can I assess students’ posts?

Providing guidance to student on how to think critically and share ideas in online discussion forums is important. The directions you provide should give insight to the kind of critical thinking you want your students to perform. Do you want students to synthesize information or analyze it? Do you want them to offer critiques of arguments or to ask questions? Do you want students to make connections to real life scenarios or to tie ideas back to integral course themes? Do you want students to exhibit creativity or to show command of the material?

Broadly speaking, your means of assessment must be transparent and clear, thus the directions you give should be chosen carefully. If the directions are clear, you can create an easy rubric for students as well. Here are a few considerations.

Quantity: You will likely want to establish a minimum number or words (or sentences, perhaps) that each student’s post will contain. Between 100 words and 250 words is reasonable, but this depends on your goals for the assignment. I would suggest the limit is equally about how much time you can devote to reading every student post on a regular basis – longer is not necessarily better.

Quality: While some may prefer to leave student responses more open-ended, I would strongly suggest having structure. For example, because cultivating citation habits are important in my courses, I require students to include the page numbers of the passages they comment upon. This is in addition to several other aspects I incorporate:

  1. “1BT”: If you are going to ask students to answer specific questions about a reading, try to make sure those questions are open-ended. Do not ask questions about specific content, this turns the entire exercise into a search for a few key terms in order to answer the prompt. I will often assign what I call the 1BT, the “1 Big Thing” (thanks, Scott Van Pelt), where I ask the students to comment on their biggest takeaway from the reading, what they think they will remember for a long time, or why they think I assigned the reading. Sometimes, I will reframe the 1BT as the “1 Big Theme” and I will ask the students to locate a course theme in the reading, often when it is not explicit in the reading.
  2. “3CQs”: In addition to the 1BT above, I will also ask students to answer the 3CQs, or “3 Critical Questions.” These are simply noting what information was new and interesting, what information was old or already discussed in our class (or elsewhere), and what information was odd or confusing. Each of these responses has to be justified or explained in some detail (X was interesting because Y). I would also encourage students to speculate answers to the questions they posed about what they found confusing. (Only in writing this did I discover that Jenn Stewart-Mitchell developed a similarly named “3C&Q model” in relationship to commenting on student posts, see here.)
  3. Other: One could also ask students to summarize the main points of a reading (synthesis), or identify the thesis or conclusion along with the main pieces of evidence (analysis), or isolate what they think is the weakest piece of evidence (critique). I’ve found asking students to make analogies to be the best conversation starters, namely asking student to link the reading to something in the real world, or something in their personal experience, or something they’ve learned previously.  

How can I assess students’ comments on posts?

In order to avoid simple compliments (Great idea!) or critiques (I disagree), some structure should also be given to comments.

Quantity:  You should decide the minimum number of interactions per assignment. Two or three comments per student is reasonable. The word count will typically be significantly less than posts, maybe 30 or 50 words.

Quality: I generally take the position that a comment should either add (agree), subtract (disagree), or clarify. By “adding,” I mean the comment explains how the post generated new ideas or helped create new links to other information for the commenting student. By “subtracting,” I mean the comment critiques the claims in the post in some manner or sets forth an argument for a different interpretation of the reading. By clarifying, I mean the comment poses a question about the post or asks if a certain interpretation of the post (explained in the comments) is what the original post author intended.

How can I grade students’ discussion posts? Do I need a grading rubric?

I would strongly suggest you use a simple 2-level grading scale, like pass/not-pass. The more intricate the grading system, the more time you will spend grading, so keep it simple. This is especially true if you will be grading hundreds of these discussion forum posts over the duration of the course. Many may still prefer a 3-level system, such as excellent/satisfactory/fail. This is fine, just make sure to clearly articulate the difference between an excellent and satisfactory grade.

I more typically use a mastery/redo scale. If the student does not meet all of my criteria for mastery, they have to redo, or in many cases refine, their work. Only if they do not redo the work will they fail that assignment. Of course, this means the first assignment or two requires close attention and more feedback on my part, but I’ve found that front-loading my efforts pays off in the long run.

If your expectations and directions are clear enough, a rubric will be simple enough to craft. And while you do not need a rubric, at least your expectations should be made clear. Below is what my discussion rubric looks like based on the discussion above.

What type of feedback should I provide?

Individual feedback for the first week or two is important to make sure every students knows how to properly engage with quality commentary in the discussion forums. This means making sure students are following directions or are interacting in appropriate ways. Otherwise, my commentary on individual posts is minimal. Sometime I will jump in to stir the pot, or to challenge a claim, or to offer praise, but more often I will let students discussions move forward naturally.

At the end of a block (or week, or module, or whatever), I would suggest making a few summary comments about the discussions that occurred. This means trying to find trends that cut across groups (if you use groups), highlight anything that stuck out as exemplary (and ask students to model, perhaps), and otherwise note how those discussions will build to the following week’s work. It’s also nice to point out when discussion moved in direction that you didn’t expect – what topic or themes emerged that were not originally obvious to you, or what ideas or concepts were not covered by the students that you thought were important.

What if students are rude to one another?

It’s definitely worth having a “netiquette” discussion early. If possible, have students themselves craft “rules of engagement.” Some ideas can be found here.

*If you are looking for other resources related to university teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, see my earlier post here.

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