Hero video
Conducting effective online discussions
Video by COFAonlineUNSW

Promoting discussion: Problems and Solutions

Darren Sudlow —

All teachers fear the out-of-control classroom. In fact, it is a common belief that teaching online allows avoiding all of the discipline and classroom management issues found in face-to-face classrooms. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

Of course, the most effective preventive step for many management issues is preparation. For online classes, that includes the creation of purposeful and meaningful discussion board activities. A second defense is being prepared for the issues you may encounter. Solutions to some of the most common issues are provided in the following list:

Problem: Non participation

Online courses are notorious for high levels of non participation and attrition. Monitoring participation in online discussions is critical, especially with middle and high school students, who may not be closely monitored by an adult at home. Independence, autonomy, and self- regulation are not universal skills. Even students who are otherwise engaged may exhibit non participatory behaviors in online discussions.
Solution: First, try to determine if there is a cause unrelated to engagement with the course. Lack of Internet access, technical issues, and life issues may prevent students from participating in ways they would like. Recommend an alternative location, such as an after-hours school computer lab or a library where students may find access. Second, ensure that learners understand what is expected of them (Wu & Hiltz, 2004). Walk them through the process, step by step. Third, review your course design and add additional guidance and resources in course activities. Make sure learners are aware that lack of participation does not excuse them from completing an assignment. Create alternative assignments for learners who are unable to make up discussion activities, due to lack of participation.

Problem: Writing too little
This can be an issue at any age—from very young learners to adults. Learners have a natural tendency to meet only the minimum expectations requirements for an activity or assignment.
Solution: Clearly articulating the purpose and relevance of an assignment to learners’ lives outside school can increase their engagement with the content. Provide examples of acceptable responses. Also consider providing examples of what not to do to highlight the differences. Negotiated outcomes can provide added incentive and motivation for learners.

Problem: Visiting a discussion only once

Some learners will participate but do so in a single visit and never come back. This defeats the purpose of ongoing discussions, interactions, and engagement that you are trying to create.
Solution: Setting clear expectations for participation is critical. Make learners aware that regular, consistent interaction is required for meaningful discussions to occur. Require them to post a minimum number of times per week, or request that they respond a minimum number of times to classmates. Set up variable due dates over the course of the week. For example, require an initial post on Tuesday and a response to a classmate’s post on Friday. Try to refrain from closing discussion forums on the due date. Rather, expect that discussion forums will extend past their due dates to allow for last-minute posts. Adjust your due dates to allow for this inevitability.

Problem: Generic replies

Learners may post only generic replies, such as “Hey, great post” and “Wow, you’re awesome.”
Solution: Even when given clear expectations about the content of posts, learners may not be comfortable critiquing, providing opinions, or reflecting deeply on content. These behaviors must be learned and practiced. Provide opportunities for learners to practice their skills and assess them on it. For example, create a sample discussion in which students work together to create appropriate, high-quality responses at the start of class. Provide models of exemplary posts, and use questioning strategies to
prompt deeper learning.

Problem: Small number of participants

Having a small class can limit the quality of discussions simply because there are fewer participants (Vrasidas & McIsaac, 1999). If discussions are spread over a week, there will not be enough activity to keep the discussion going.
Solution: As a general rule, there should be at least 10 to 12 learners in a class to have an optimum level of input. If you have such a small class, be thankful. Clearly, it is much easier to provide personal attention to a small number of learners than to a large number. Increase the activity in a small class by incorporating discussions into collaborative activities.Also allow learners to meet with partners or small groups, rather than participate in whole-class discussions. Their work will be more focused and individualized.

Problem: Writing/reading skill or quality is poor

Learners with poor writing skills are at a disadvantage in text based communications, and they may be afraid of opening themselves up to ridicule and judgment by classmates. Try to prevent problems from occurring, and prepare alternative strategies for these learners. Very young students also fit in this category.
Solution: The use of speech-to-text and text-to-speech software can provide an effective solution to this problem. If resources do not allow the purchase of a proprietary application, this capability is built into both PC- and Mac-compatible operating systems. Allow learners to use audio recording software to create an audio file such as a podcast. What is important is the content of the discussion, not the media used to share the message. Consider enlisting the help of an adult or tutor to act as proxy or to assist in proofreading and editing. For very young learners, be prepared to instruct parents on appropriate ways to record their child’s responses. It can be hard for parents to refrain from including what they know or prompting the child in some way.

Problem: Inappropriate comments and/or language

You should not immediately assume that what is perceived as an inappropriate comment was intentional. It takes time and practice to become skilled in online discussions, and learners do not always think about what they are actually saying before posting. Learners may not understand how their comments could be taken in a negative way.
Solution: It is critical that you diligently moderate student discussions, so you can identify and remove offensive content. (Always maintain the right to remove any comments you consider offensive.) Provide students with ample opportunity to practice writing and reflecting on their posts. Have them practice reading aloud, since hearing words spoken aloud can sometimes produce better understanding. Provide opportunities for peers to proofread or review responses before they are posted. From the start, be direct and honest with students about what is and is not acceptable. With older students, assign discussion leaders who are responsible for monitoring, or incorporate self-monitoring strategies.

Problem: Inclusive, exclusive, and bullying behaviors

Cliques and behaviors that exclude individuals from a group are fairly typical in the upper grades. Youths love to partner with their friends, and in most cases, doing so is not harmful. In fact, exclusion tends to be less of an issue in online courses, because learners usually live in a wide variety of geographic locations. In addition, the lack of visual cues puts everybody on equal footing. Even so, you must be aware of the potential for disruptive and damaging behaviors, for both ethical and legal reasons.
Solution: If you notice learners intentionally excluding certain individuals, bullying them, or engaging in other harmful behaviors, respond in accordance with your school’s or organization’s reporting protocol. Save all documented evidence of the behavior, and report the incident if necessary. If the problem does not require disciplinary action, try to structure your activities in a way that restricts favoritism and promotes heterogeneous, small-group collaboration. Practicing random group selection is one example. You can allow learners flexibility in forming groups but not make group members known until selections have been made. You can also designate discussion partners and small groups. Require learners to respond to one set of classmates in one post and a different set of classmates in the next. Finally, try to have learners subscribe to the discussion via email, so that their posts will automatically go to the whole class. This can be overwhelming with large numbers of students, but it is manageable with a small class.

Problem: Continuous enrolment

Some programs have continuous or rolling enrollment, allowing learners to enter a course at any time. Although this provides learners with the ultimate flexibility, it can hamper instructors’ attempts to engage learners in meaningful discussions with classmates.

Solution: This type of enrollment obviously creates a difficult situation and often results in weak discussions. Try arranging small-group discussions with learners who are on the same track. Also create a so-called running discussion, which is ongoing and requires learners to build on what has occurred before. Writing Roulette is another strategy that allows for continuously adding to a long-running storyline.

Common Errors When Conducting Discussions

Remember that online discussions are intended to facilitate interactions between students, rather than single responses from the teacher. Online discussions should produce the same outcomes you would expect from face-to-face discussions: deeper learning, higher levels of thinking, and group interaction. Plan your lessons to facilitate this type of purposeful engagement. It is also important to understand that some of the most common errors facilitators make when conducting online discussions are the same types of errors made in facilitating face-to-face discussions

  • Asking too many questions at once . Although this is less of an issue in online discussions, it is possible to post a response to a learner that asks more questions than he or she can possibly answer in a reasonable response.
  • Asking a question and answering it yourself . Even online, teachers tend to provide the correct answer when they see learners failing to discover it on their own.
  • Failing to probe or explore the implications of responses . This is probably teachers’ most common mistake of all. Sometimes, it is just easier to take students’ responses at face value, rather than ask students to explore the implications of what they say.
  • Asking unconnected questions . All teachers have likely been guilty of this at one time or another. Asking unrelated questions distracts learners and leads them away from the core objectives and goals.
  • Asking yes/no or leading questions . Asking these types of questions ultimately leads to having flat and uninspired discussions. Use other forums or surveys for these types of questions.
  • Ignoring or failing to build on answers . Be sure to acknowledge the value of learners’ contributions. This does not necessarily mean responding to every student. Rather, highlighting and summarizing learner contributions can be effective.