Discussions are a great way of sharing understanding and building and constructing knowledge. We often use discussions in face to face classes, and think little of opening the floor to comments and opinions. We might do this a few times in a face to face class. But how does this work in the online environment? What are the things we can do to make these discussions more useful, more productive and more engaging?

One challenge I have found in designing online discussions is that the first person to answer the question – a brave position to take – can often answer the question quite comprehensively, so all the rest of the participants just add “I agree”.

Here I offer four ways to frame the discussion differently. Much will depend on your context and subject, but hopefully there are some ideas here that might spark your thinking about your discussion boards.

1. Small group discussions as per class sessions with report back

This is simply a form of Think, Pair, Share but online. Put your participants into small groups – perhaps 5 or 6 – and ask them to think about an issue or question first, then share their thoughts with their small group. Then they post the results of their discussion back to the whole group.

2. Students with different roles

For example – as facilitator, as weaver together of ideas, as encourager, as moderator, as locator of content. Whole class discussions (even in a face to face context) often mean that some students just don’t speak up. One way of encouraging participation is to give students different roles in the discussion. You can rotate these around the group as the session moves on, but be sure to give clear instructions about the behaviour and interventions you expect them to make in their role.

3. Discussion forums with rules

The debate. This form of discussion forum requires everyone to understand the rules. A debate is relatively straightforward – you are allocated or choose the side you would argue for, and then the debate commences. You can use standard debating conventions, or make some more inclusive ones that students post their positions on either side of the debate. You will need a provocative statement for them to react to.

4. Discussion forums

The opposing view, the opposite idea. The idea of this discussion forum is to promote critical thinking. Students can only post an opposing idea to the previous posting, so that the discussion requires students to read the previous post and challenge the ideas in it with a counterpoint. Again you need to think of a provocative or contentious view, but then they are the interesting ones, aren’t they?

I would love to hear your thoughts about this – have you tried different constructions for your discussion boards? Or have you tried one of these ideas, how did it go?

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