Ashanti Morgan

Reviving Threaded Discussions: Strategies to Enhance Virtual Conversations

Threaded discussions have been part of the online course framework for decades. There are a number of advantages to online discussions for students that differ from in-person. Unlike a face-to-face course, many faculty note that in an online discussion, each student is tasked with responding to a prompt thus providing more individualized instruction. It’s much easier for an introverted student to avoid raising his or her hand in class.

If the online modality creates opportunities to engage students that may not otherwise volunteer to talk in class, how can we capitalize on this?

My Experience

I took my first hybrid course during graduate school in 2002 via Blackboard. I recall threaded discussions being a large component of the activities that we engaged in weekly. Fast forward present day, much of the pedagogy in terms of the structure of discussion guidelines, prompts, and rubrics have not changed significantly. What remains constant in many asynchronous discussions is the idea of a student posting a response to a discussion prompt, and then responding to 1-2 peers’ responses.

Don’t get me wrong, there can be a rich exchange between students with this type of discussion design, but I would argue that there are more effective strategies to facilitate and encourage critical thinking.

Endless Opportunities

As you flesh out the course’s design, starting with the end in mind (Understanding by Design Framework) is paramount. What outcomes would you like to occur as a result of this learning activity? How will students be graded?

Creating engaging conversations via asynchronous discussion can be accomplished in a myriad of ways. When determining the best approach to discussion design, several factors should be considered. Here are a few:

  • What are your measurable objectives for the assignment?
  • Will the discussion be segmented into groups or whole class?
  • Will the discussion be instructor-led or student-led?
  • How will students be assessed (discussion guidelines, rubric)?

When working with faculty to design a course, I’ll often propose ideas that mirror the examples below. This list is not meant to be inclusive, but has proven helpful in brainstorming discussion development.

Generating Discussions that Matter

  • Guiding questions: Pose questions from the lecture, readings, multimedia, etc., that allow students to think through his or her response to a discussion prompt.
  • Student choice/decision-making: Let students choose their own topic and generate discussion questions.
  • Real-world connections: Charge students with including a current event or personal story in their response to the discussion prompt.
  • Accountability: As part of their responses, have students cite sources that they used.
  • Open-ended prompts: Create prompts that allow each student to provide a unique response. This prevents repetition in responses or students that didn’t do the assignment paraphrasing another student’s response.
  • Reading and/or lecture-based discussions: Facilitate discussions based on existing course content that allow students to connect to a real-world situation. (Demonstrating mastery of the concepts.)
  • Student-led discussions/student instructor (teach the lesson): Consider doing peer-to-peer teaching that is based on the instructor modeling how the discussion should be led. Students generate content, questions, etc., 1-2 times during the term/semester.
    • This type of discussion allows students to choose a topic of interest and correlate it to the objectives of the assignment.

No matter how you decide to frame the assignment, it’s important to ensure that the discussion is meaningful and not busy work. Some of the most effective discussions foster students’ creativity, ability to solve problems, make decisions, collaborate, and conduct research. Interestingly enough, this type of engagement is similar to what students experience with K-12 educational technology via ISTE’s NETS standards for students. Continuing to build on this framework at the collegiate level is essential.

Ashanti Morgan

About Ashanti Morgan

Ashanti Morgan is a Senior Instructional Technology Consultant and Program Manager for the Global Learning Experience (GLE) initiative at DePaul University. She also teaches computer productivity courses online as an adjunct professor in DePaul's School for New Learning. Ashanti has been working in the instructional design industry for over a decade in a variety of sectors including higher education, K-12, and non-profit. In her current role at DePaul, she manages faculty training, strategic planning, and global course development for the GLE program, an initiative that exposes students to intercultural exchanges while collaborating virtually with students abroad. She also provides instructional design expertise to faculty in a variety of disciplines across the university. Ashanti earned her master’s degree in Instructional Technology from Northern Illinois University. She also obtained her bachelor’s degree in Organizational & Corporate Communication from Northern Illinois University.

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