Tips for Taking Classroom Discussions Online

August 4, 2017 Hans Mundahl

I was leading a training workshop recently for a group of educators. A very experienced English teacher pointed out they didn’t see the purpose of an online discussion board. “Everything we do is about relationships,” he emphasized, “an online discussion lacks the human element.”

Here’s the thing: I got into teaching because I love working with students not because I love working with computers. So to a certain extent I completely agreed with the English teacher.

I suppose I could have replied with the technical features of the software that made it more like a real-time discussion. But my heart wasn’t in it. An online discussion simply isn’t the same as being in the same room with a group of students.

Rather than disagree with the English teacher I asked a follow up question. If classroom discussions are central to a great classroom experience what makes them frustrating? What are the barriers to a great conversation?

Together the workshop participants and I quickly came up with a list:

  • Classroom discussions favor verbal processors
  • Classroom discussions favor native English speakers
  • Classroom discussions emphasize speed over reflection
  • Classroom discussions favor extroverts
  • A dominant (sometimes male) perspective can too easily steer the conversation
  • Referencing the text is difficult if you are trying to think and speak at the same time
  • Assessing discussions is hard to do for a teacher who is also trying to facilitate the conversation

We came to a powerful conclusion: an online discussion isn’t a replacement for an in-class conversation. Rather a well structured online discussion is a valuable extension of an in-class activity.

After exploring this idea further in my own teaching I’ve come up with a few best practices for your consideration:

  • Start it in class and continue it online - Here is the setup: begin a conversation as you would normally but leave the discussion open at the end of class. Homework? Continue the conversation online.
  • Set some guidelines - What does a good online conversation look like? How should you reply in a threaded discussion? Should you post two ideas of your own and reply to the thoughts of three others? Let the class know your expectations and give them room to exceed your baseline.
  • Let your class know where you are going - before you begin an in-class conversation let your class know your plans. This will let students know you value all of their opinions. Students may wish to jot down ideas or thoughts to explore further once the conversation moves online.

After using this technique a few times I realized it offered quiet students a chance to shine and mental processors the time they needed to demonstrate their understanding.

What do you think? How have you used online discussions?

About the Author

Hans Mundahl

I've been an educator since 1995 when I first stepped into the classroom as a Fulbright exchange teacher in the former East Germany. Since then I've been an Outward Bound instructor, a teacher, tutor, admission officer, house head, evening administrator on duty and I ran the experiential learning program at New Hampton School for almost ten years. Today I focus on technology integration centered on values-driven technology integration and 1:1 iPad initiatives. Recently I had the chance to help New Hampton School become an Apple Distinguished School and I co-authored the iBook Teaching with the iPad (available on the iBookstore). Now I'm the founder of a scrappy little company (one employee!) called Hans Mundahl and Associates, inc a digital strategy consultancy for schools and non-profits.

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