Public Relations Today
By Monica Burns • September 22, 2014

How to Start Engaging Students Through Online Discussions


One of the best parts of using an online platform is the ability to extend discussion time outside of the classroom.  Your students shouldn’t feel like the only time they can connect with their teachers and peers is when they are sitting in study groups or a lecture hall.  Whether you are teaching a class completely online or using a platform like Chalkup to extend learning beyond classroom hours, online discussions are vital to student learning.

Asking students to participate in online class discussions is easier said than done.  It definitely requires thought and planning on the part of the facilitator.  Students need to understand the expectations for participating in online discussions, feel comfortable sharing, and see the value of interacting with their peers in this format beyond school hours.  In order to engage students through online discussions you’ll need to take time to introduce this important aspect of how learning takes place in your classroom.

Getting StartedDiscussions for class collaboration

Just like any routine or procedure that is important to your classroom culture, you’ll want to set expectations for student learning through online discussions.  This should be more than posting an overview on your class’ page or a syllabus.  It needs to be included in your overall discussion of class expectations.  Students should understand the purpose of discussions in your classroom.  For example, discussion may be used to share work, provide constructive criticism, or brainstorm new ideas.  They’ll need to hear an explanation on how discussions will be graded and how often they are expected to participate.  Depending on the level and course content you are presenting to students, you may want to show them an example of a great discussion thread and point out why this online discussion was beneficial to the students who participated.


Student Accountability

Holding students accountable for participation can be challenging for teachers in a face-to-face learning environment as well as those using an online platform.  Part of setting the expectations for students will include letting them know if and how they will be graded for participating in online discussions.  You may want to provide a rubric for how they will be graded on a weekly basis for their participation, or give them the magic number for how many posts you expect from them each week.  This can be modified as you get to know your students and their learning styles but it is important that students understand your expectations.

Your Role

Once your semester or school year gets started you will want to have a presence in online discussions.  You can comment on a discussion or provide an answer to a question but make sure to engage students through this process.  Provide links to resources in your own responses for students to access to find their own answers.  Pose follow-up questions on a discussion thread to keep students thinking about the task or objective beyond their initial response.  Choose the right times to jump in but also be respectful of giving students a space to work out their own problems with their peers.  As you get to know your students finding this balance will become easier.

Promoting Buy-In

You’ll want to make sure that students see the benefit from participating in an online discussion besides getting points for participation.  A great way to make sure that students see the value of online discussion is to show them examples of how these forums can help them succeed in your class.  This could be as simple as showing them a screenshot from the previous or current semester where students worked out a problem together, answered each other’s questions, or provided resources or ideas that were useful.

Online discussions are powerful learning tools for students.  With thoughtful execution you can keep your students engaged in these forums throughout the school year!

Monica Burns is an Education Consultant, EdTech Blogger, and Apple Distinguished Educator. Visit her site for more ideas on how to become a tech-savvy teacher.

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