Powerful Asynchronous Conversation

Asynchronous forums offer many learning opportunities and benefits, but deep inquiry happens only when the teacher provides good structure and moderation.  Here are my 10 tips for building purposeful conversation in asynchronous virtual forums.

1. Establish a Time Frame for Each Asynchronous Discussion Forum.

A one-week time frame often works well for allowing students to log in several times according their own schedule and ensuring several back and forth exchanges.  Sometimes I use two-week forums for peer feedback on projects and assignments.  In general I find that the longer the time frame for the forum, the more moderation it needs to keep it dynamic.

2. Clearly Define Expectations for Participation.

I usually require my students to post at least one initial message in the forum to reflect on the assigned readings and media, and at least two replies to classmates.  I ask them to log in at least 3 different times during the week to spread out their participation over the time frame and increase interaction.  These guidelines also allow flexibility.  Students may interact back and forth with one person several times or interact with more than one person.  I think it is also helpful to add a rubric for forum participation in your course syllabus.  A rubric can provide a more detailed guide about the message quality and may be used for ongoing formative assessment and to give students feedback about their participation.  If you will be assigning grades in your course, you may want to use students’ rubric scores towards evidence of proficiency with the course content. Given this structure I find that most students contribute generously.  In classes of 20-30 adult students, I typically have 125 -175 messages in a one week-long forum.  Here is an example of a grading rubric I have used in my college classes for teachers:

4: Exceptional Performance

  • Messages characterized by depth of insight into theoretical issues in assigned readings and media, clarity of argument supported by references or quotes, and originality.
  • Replies contained insightful comments and questions that prompted further on-topic discussion, and/or helped clarify or synthesize other class members’ ideas.
  • Participant submitted 3 or mores messages in the discussion forum.  Participation was distributed throughout the assigned week to facilitate ongoing discussion.
  • Any disagreement with ideas of others was expressed respectfully.  Spelling/grammar appropriate to an academic environment.

3: High Quality Performance

  • Messages contained insight and supported argument with reference to assigned readings/media.
  • Replies included questions that stimulated discussion or answers to questions raised by others.
  • Participant posted at least 3 messages in the discussion forum and distributed participation over at least 2 days during the assigned week to facilitate ongoing discussion.
  • Any disagreement with ideas of others was expressed respectfully.  Spelling/grammar appropriate to an academic environment.

2: Partially Met Performance Objectives

  • Topic was partially addressed and/or replies partially supported discussion.
  • Partially met requirements for quantify and distribution of replies during the assigned week.
  • Posts were respectful. Grammar and spelling may have been somewhat informal for the academic environment.

1:  Minimal or No Performance

  • Minimal or no participation.
  • Participants’ expression may have been unclear or off-topic.
  • Written communication may have been of poor quality or inappropriate.

3. Provide 3-5 Open-Ended Questions as Discussion Prompts.

For each forum, I provide open-ended questions.  Although answering them is optional, it provides students with ideas for reflecting on their readings and media.  Do not ask questions for which you want a correct answer or you will get 25 variations on the same response, and no discussion.

4. Use Subjects to Good Advantage.

For example, in my forum for discussing the course material on learning disabilities I ask my student teachers to use the subject line to state the learning disabilities subtopic that they will write about.  A first grade students teacher may post a message about “Dysgraphia in First Grade” and another student teacher may respond to the course readings and media with a message about “Dyslexia in High School English.”  If the forum software you are using does not offer a subject field, tell your students to create a subject heading for their message and then skip to the next line to write the body of the message.  When the message is posted, the subject will then stand out.

5. Nurture Your Threads!

Make sure students understand that there are two ways to participate in a discussion forum.  They may respond directly to the instructor’s prompts by clicking on the reply button directly below the teacher’s message.  Or, they may reply within a thread by clicking on the reply button immediately below another student’s message.  Keeping the discussion organized into threads leads to deeper discussion.  For example, if a second or third student in my class has more to say about “Dysgraphia in First Grade,” he should respond within that thread and not respond to the instructor in the main thread.  Each thread then evoles into deeper discussion about a subtopic.

Threads Image

Forum Threads

6. Model Good Messages.

The instructor should take part in discussion, adding a message whenever she has clarification, resources or questions for the student.  I always start my messages by re-stating my understanding of the student’s point or question, and end with validating that he contributed to discussion, whether I have agreed with him or not.  This deepens understandings and sends the message that contributions to discussion are valuable, even when there are different points of view or incomplete understandings.   It also models good forum etiquette.  In the middle, between my opening and closing statement, I add my contribution, be it information, links to further resources, or a question that challenges to the student to a higher level of thinking.  Finally, this is another opportunity for instructors to model appropriate use of the threads.

7. Debrief the Discussion.

A large percentage of the learning in my classes comes from the discussion as students work to apply the course content to their real life situations.  Much is lost if students do not review the conversation to make sure they caught all the issues, responses, and extra resources that were linked during the week.  Offer a summary assignment.  You can do this as an individual or group assignment on a rotating basis.  I often reserve it for students who have missed the discussion due to illness or another difficulty participating on the discussion schedule.  A good make-up assignment is to have at least one student read the completed discussion and summarize the main topics, ideas and resources that were discussed.  Have him post the summary at the end of the discussion forum for all to benefit.

9. Keep the Forum Online.

Keep your discussion forums available for the duration of the course.  Students often like to re-visit the discussion later as they remember something somebody said, or a resource that was shared.  Even though the class moves on to the next discussion forum, a few students may want to also continue their conversation about last week’s topic.

9. Use Simple Forum Settings.

Turn off subscriptions if you can.  Unless the forum allows subscriptions to individual messages or threads, in-depth discussion will produce too many messages for email.  Encourage students to log in to the forum and view the discussion in thread order.  Allow students to edit their own messages.  You will get more participation if students can change their mistakes or regrets.  (I find this especially true for adults; digital natives share online more easily.)  However, do not activate the message deletion option in your forum, as it typically causes deletion of any replies that have already been posted below the deleted message in the same thread.  Most forums will date stamp an updated message and this will avoid any potential confusion when messages are modified.

10. Nurture your Discussion Community Over Time.

Make your first discussion forum straight-forward and uncomplicated.  By doing so, you can accommodate a full range of technology skills in your student body.  I have 3 goals for my first forum.  The first is a process goal: I want my students to understand how to use threads.  I ask them to post an initial reply to me in the main thread, and to respond to other students in separate threads.  My second goal is a content goal: I want to find out about my students’ background with my course content, their strengths and interests.  I ask my students to post an introduction that includes a description of their prior experience with the subject matter, as well as to say what they hope to get out of my class.  This gives me an excellent needs assessment to use as I teach, and helps me to focus my course materials and discussion on my group of learners.  It allows me to draw on the strengths of class members at the appropriate time, as well as offer more support and resources when necessary.  My third goal is begin to develop my learning community.  As students learn to use threads to respond to each other, they begin to develop the connections of shared background and interests that will develop further during the course.  In this first forum I think it is very important for the teacher to respond briefly to each student to welcome him to the class and assure him that his voice has been “heard.”

In later forums, the teacher can take part intermittently in discussion as the situation demands.  However, I like to keep an informal tally of my responses so I am sure to touch base with each student every so often.  Each forum can get a little more complex and you can vary the forum instructions to address different purposes.  For example, I may ask students to post a first draft of an assignment in the discussion forum, with the subject “Jane’s first draft.”  They then read one another’s drafts, offer feedback by replying within each students thread, and post subsequent drafts or final versions below the peer feedback.  This is an effective way to watch how each assignment evolves with feedback, and can even offer samples for debriefing the process of using feedback well. But this is just one example of how forums can be used creatively — use your imagination!

Well structured asynchronous discussion forums can be used in many creative ways for interaction, collaboration and learning within a class group.  Even technology novices can learn how to interact online if you structure your forums well.  Once students learn the conventions you have established for the forums, interaction can be targeted and support deep learning.  Your students will be sad to say goodbye to their asynchronous learning community at the end of the course but will have learned something about how to work productively in groups online.

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