Why Do Online Discussions Fail?

Over the past few months I have been re-designing online courses that help to support teachers as they integrate technology into blended and online learning environments.

I am going to try to make more time to share my insights with you, beginning with this post about using discussion boards in learning.

Many educators use online discussion tools to facilitate conversations with students, colleagues, and other contacts. Educators often find that the quality of the responses are poor and/or participation is low. Here are some possible reasons why students may not fully engage in discussions:

  • Students have been provided with too little scaffolding and support. 
Is there a response rubric for the discussion? Have students had the chance to practice quality responses? Has the facilitator modelled responses that provide illustrative links and resources, ask further questions, or provide examples to fuel the discussion?
  • The discussion came from, and leads, nowhere. 
What happens before the discussion that led to an online conversation? What happens after the discussion? How do participants and facilitators draw and share conclusions based on their discussion? Like any well-planned lesson, students need scaffolded instruction and activities that build on previous learning and help them to build understanding over a sustained period of time.
  • Discussion questions are unclear. How have discussion questions been worded? What is the purpose of the discussion question? Is the question too open- or closed-ended? Here are some examples to consider:
    • Poor example: Have you ever been in a blended classroom? 
(Problem: The question has a “yes” or “no” answer; the question is too “closed.”)
    • Better example: What do you consider to be the difference between blended learning and face to face instruction? 
(Problem: The question is asking an opinion without the need for examples or references; the question can have a very broad interpretation.)
    • Great example: Explain what you consider to be the three key elements of blended/online learning and the three key elements of face to face instruction. Include links, examples, and resources to illustrate your ideas. Respond to two other posts with links, examples, ideas, and resources.
      • This great example would be even better if participants built upon their first round of posts after additional lessons and/or application. Example: Add to your original discussion thread and include one example of how you applied an element of blended/online learning in your environment. Highlight two elements that you feel were most successful in your example and two changes that you would make next time. Respond to two posts with feedback or resources that relate to your colleague’s example.
  • Discussions are used only to share opinions.
Discussions can also be used to:
    • Share and gather feedback on in-progress work
    • Hold reflective conversations about learning progress
    • Share resources, materials, and links
    • Spark or follow up after f2f conversations, review concepts, and more.

There are many tips around using discussions as part of a dynamic learning environment. Do you have more to add?

(Image: Pacman, by Fenix_21. 2008. Available under a Creative Commons (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0) License.)

Promising Practice: Tech Integration in Special Ed

I would like to share a few tidbits of my work with you, in the hopes that you may contribute your ideas or try some of these approaches out for yourself. The first tidbit is titled, Promising Practice: Integrating Technology into the ACCESS Classroom. This is a project that I conducted over the course of the 2008-2009 school year, in collaboration with a special education teacher who teaches high school students with mild to severe cognitive and physical disabilities. The project outlines what we did, as well as teacher and student reflections, examples, SMART Notebook files for sharing, and images of the process.

The highlights of this project are:

  • Integration of a variety of software that general-stream high school students use, including SMART Notebook on the SMART Board, Desire2Learn distributed course management system, Microsoft Photo Story, Flickr, Google Images, YouTube, and Kurzweil
  • Use of 1-1 student laptops at the school 1-3 days per week
  • Smooth integration of technology as logical tools to support learning and conduct research into age-approriate curricular themes that stress literacy skills
  • Integration of all subject areas using inquiry into the curricular themes
  • Collaboration between special education students and general-stream students, which resulted in valuable and meaningful relationships and growth for everyone involved

I encourage you to take a look at my project and give me some feedback, or try something out and let me know how it went. And if you would like to read more about my technology integration projects, feel free to visit this link, where all of the projects listed are mine, except for the last one.

(Image: Student at the SMART Board, by ACCESS. 2009. Collected during the Promising Practice: Integrating Technology into the ACCESS Classroom)