Public Relations Today
By Chalkup Staff • December 4, 2017

The Secret to Having Online Class Discussions That Engage Students

There are many meaningful discussions taking place right now about how to manage online conversations, leverage messaging, eradicate bullying, and ensure communication tools are used appropriately by everyone within a school community.

We’ve found that strategies and preferred edtech seems to vary school to school, with all acknowledging that it can be a genuine challenge to set ground rules and create a safe online environment for students to keep in touch and keep learning.

So what’s the best way to talk transparently about common concerns over online messaging spaces? We think it’s to talk to teachers who have done it and seen discussion spaces work. Below we’ve put together a few questions about online chat/discussion boards used in classrooms. Read on and you’ll find some advice from Chalkup teacher users and friends on what’s worked for them.


Q: How can I teach students about good online behavior? I’m worried that students will misbehave on our discussion thread.


I definitely believe it’s the role of the teacher to model good behavior and the same goes with appropriate online behavior.


I explicitly teach a few things to help students learn and apply digital citizenship. First of all, I give models for online discussion board posts and replies so students can sample match them for assignments. For replies, I show students how to reference another person (I encourage them to use the @ symbol with the other student’s name), require them to cite their sources (either through formal parenthetical citations or linking), and encourage those who want to leave critical feedback to use the “sandwich rule” (sandwiching critical comments in between positive remarks).

“I definitely believe it’s the role of the teacher to model good behavior and the same goes with appropriate online behavior.”

I even practice online responsibility in the classroom in a non-digital way. For example, I ask students to write their own creative hashtags to describe historic events and craft Tweets as social commentary. I then display these Tweets in the classroom.

Finally, I personally model online responsibility for students by posting professionally on a Twitter account that my students follow, read, and interact with. Even though Chalkup is a closed, private space, I expect my students to act responsibly and appropriately as if it were a public forum. Indeed, the online classroom is an extension of our physical classroom and both spaces need to be safe, appropriate, and respectful first in order for students to feel comfortable to actively engage and learn from each other.

- Katie Henderson, U.S. history teacher, Hollis-Brookline High School, NH

“Don’t put anything online you don’t want everyone to see.”

Most people, adults included, learn this the hard way. I have a poster in my room with silly boxer shorts on a clothesline that says, “Don’t put anything on the line that you don’t want everyone to see.”

- Wendy Strauss, music and technology instructor, Peoria, IL


Q: My students seem to only do the minimum on the discussion board; they aren’t interacting with each other. All the great things I was hoping for aren’t happening. Why is this?


First, consider student’s access to the discussion board. Are all students able to use this digital communication tool on a variety of devices? Does a student have access to the right technology? If not, the teacher needs to accommodate for this situation by providing the right resources.

If access is not the issue, the next consideration would be the purpose of the work. Is the learning being asked of student authentic and meaningful? In other words, do adults engage in the same type of learning and communication in their professional and personal endeavors? Using technology for the sake of technology often leads to this lack of engagement. The reason for using a discussion board has to be grounded in good teaching and learning. Otherwise the technological cart is leading the pedagogical horse.

So access is good, and the purpose is strong. A third area to address is the audience for the students’ digital dialogue. This is a challenging aspect of online discussions. How public should we be making their conversations? I think about not only strangers online who might want access to a student’s information, but also the risk in allowing our students to post for a public audience without thinking ahead. To manage this aspect of online conversations, students can be expected to make a minimum number of original posts and comments for classmates’ posts. These tasks can be assessed with a rubric measuring collaboration.

- Matt Renwick, elementary principal, Wisconsin Rapids, WI


I require students to leave a post and comment on at least one of their peer’s posts (though if a teacher wants to really encourage back-and-forth discussion and interaction, they may want to require two or three comments/replies) and I use staggered deadlines for these two elements. There is an initial deadline for the student’s original post and then a later deadline for a comment. If there is one deadline for the entire discussion, many students will wait until the last minute to post (at midnight the day before it’s due, for example) and so students who are ready to comment are forced to wait until the last minute to be able to reply and engage in the conversation. This also prevents students from commenting on the first post only (perhaps one students finishes a lot earlier than others) and instead encourages them to look at multiple peers’ posts and decide how they want to comment.

I try to provide students with choice as much as possible. This gives students autonomy and encourages intrinsic motivation. My current events assignments, for example, allow students to choose any current event article they’re interested in; the only stipulation is that it’s national or international news and it can’t be entertainment or sports-related.

- Katie Henderson, U.S. history teacher, Hollis-Brookline High School, NH


Q: I feel some responsibility for showing my students how to be good digital citizens as part of this process. Any thoughts?


From kindergarten on up, all teachers should be modeling digital citizenship for their students. This looks different based on the age of the students and the expectations for the learning. At the primary level, teachers can create a classroom Twitter account. They can follow other classrooms on this social media tool and interact with others and what they share. The teacher’s role is to facilitate conversation by asking thoughtful questions about the online content. Inquiries could include, “Do you think this was a smart post? Why or why not?” and “Why do you think it was important that I only shared an image of your profiles online, and not your faces?”

Young learners should understand that everything online was created by someone, and that it deserves both our respect and a critical eye. Teachers can start this process by posting a “provocative” statement, such as “Schools should never cancel school due to snow.” Students are encouraged to make their arguments either way in the comments. This activity can lead into a unit of study on persuasive writing, both online and in print, along with smart ways to make one’s point.

These conversations and teaching points about safe and appropriate online behavior should always be tempered with the understanding that learning shouldn’t always take place in digital spaces. Sometimes our thoughts, writings and conversations are best left offline.

- Matt Renwick, elementary principal, Wisconsin Rapids, WI 

Click to download.