We’ve all heard horror stories about online bullying, hateful comments being sent to peers, forwarding pictures, and who knows what else. Instructors are justified in being cautious about adding new online components to their classes—especially when things aren’t static and allow for students to interact. Lots of teachers let us know about their concerns about online discussions. We thought it would be great to put together a list of the top 3 common questions that we hear from teachers, along with some helpful tips to alleviate concerns so you can feel confident that online discussions can be a safe environment that adds to learning, not distracts from it.
1.) Inappropriate posts
I’m worried that students will make fun of others, use bad language, or generally just get off task. How can I deal with messages that aren’t relevant to class?
Up front communication is a must for any new assignment. Your digital discussion board is no different, even if it seems simple. You should set clear standards for what is and is not acceptable in the class discussion. These rules will differ from class to class, but can include something about only posting course related content or penalties for personal attacks.
A discussion board won’t be successful if students don’t feel safe using it: safe making mistakes, safe from harassment, and safe from general inappropriate content. Viewing the online discussion screen as a class and showing students what it will actually look like is a great start. Point out how posts can be flagged by those who view, and how you can delete posts. Make sure your learners understand that even if a comment is removed, it is still archived. If your campus has policies about cyberbullying, remind students that there are real life consequences for what they write online.
2.) Lack of participation
The 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!
There’s that old saying about leading a horse to water and it seems to apply to students as well. You can make your discussion board shiny and awesome and some learners still won’t participate. Keep in mind that you are asking for a whole different kind of class involvement: often after school, requiring concise thought, and in addition to their regular work. You can control this last issue most easily.
How about giving an option—post to the online board or do another, more difficult, assignment. There’s an incentive then. For the first few weeks of adding in this technology, students are still getting comfortable. Make sure the things you are talking about on the discussion board have value and aren’t just using tech for no real purpose.
3.) Digital citizenship
How can I teach students about online interactions? My discussion board isn’t public, but so many things are. If I’m doing something on the web I feel some responsibility for helping learners be smart about it.
Etiquette or manners is really what we’re talking about here. Those are the rules of polite society in different situations. No one is born knowing them—it takes direct instruction, practice, and lots of reminders before a child remembers to say thank you without being prompted. Same thing with digital citizenship. No matter your content area, if you are going online for your class, you are responsible to review proper conduct and safety. There are great resources available, like this list from Common Sense Media. Your students should be fairly savvy about how to do things online but they may get caught up in the speed of things and not consider long term consequences of sharing so much with the rest of the world. Open up a dialog before diving into your digital discussion board so that your class members can get out their questions and understand your expectations. For some specific guidelines for discussion board, check out this sample list from Edutopia.
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