Using Online Discussion Posts for Meaningful Learning

Alisa Ballard Lin, The Ohio State University

One of the most common concerns I’ve seen among instructors faced with teaching asynchronously online, as many of us are doing in this COVID-19 era, is that an asynchronous course lacks the vibrant interactions of a face-to-face course. In the humanities in particular, we often construct our face-to-face courses around discussions and in-class activities. We might, for example, ask students to collectively work through the analysis of a literary passage or debate issues raised in a film. Such discussions and activities often model the knowledge-building process at the heart of the humanities, involving careful thinking, reflection, and dialogue with others.

But what happens when the course moves online—and not merely online, but into an asynchronous format, where there are no real-time videocall-facilitated interactions among students and the instructor? “Discussion posts!” many of us say, often nervously, as for many of us the concept of a discussion post evokes a repetitive, disconnected collection of student ramblings.

As the instructor of a fairly large (over 100 students) asynchronous cultural studies course this past semester, I’ve developed a few tactics for using the discussion feature on our learning management system (LMS) to construct what I have found to be meaningful, asynchronous learning experiences. I don’t these call these assignments “discussion posts,” but rather “active-learning tasks,” a cheesy name meant to remind students (and myself) that these “tasks” have a purpose. Each week’s task or tasks is specific and pointed, rather than general instructions to “discuss” the week’s content, even though they are facilitated through the LMS discussion feature. (Many instructors rave about external tools for student interaction, like FlipGrid and Perusall, but in large classes I prefer to stick to our LMS for these weekly tasks since I can enter grades directly on student submissions.)

I explain to my students that our active-learning tasks represent a portion of what I consider the equivalent of “in-class time” each week, time that also includes them watching lectures I record for them and reading written guidance for their outside films and readings. Seeing these tasks as akin to an activity I might do in an in-person class also helps me to focus carefully on what I’d like students to learn from them and how they might serve to prepare students for skills they will use in upcoming larger assignments.

The following are a few insights I’ve gathered through teaching in this way:

  1. Putting students in small active-learning task groups (5–8 students) that stay together for the semester helps them feel a sense of community and allows for the instructor to assign more targeted tasks through the discussion feature.
  2. Whatever you ask students to do in a discussion post format should have enough room built in for every student in the group to contribute meaningfully. Don’t give students a discussion prompt that the first student can simply answer, leaving all the other students to write “… what she said.”
  3. Get creative with the discussion post platform. Once I added six questions about the week’s content as six separate posts in each group’s discussion thread, and students were asked to each reply to two questions. This resulted in the groups collectively building a study guide for the key points I wanted them to learn that week.
  4. Discussion threads can also be used for list-making. As a very simple task, I asked students to each post a description of one moment in the James Bond film GoldenEye that refers to the fall of the USSR, so that their group would work together to create a list of such moments.
  5. If students are repeating what other group members write or just aren’t really having a discussion, try building in a structure that creates a discussion. You can ask them to respond directly to something the student before them wrote, for example. One of my most successful active-learning tasks asked students simply to post one question about the week’s content and one response to another student’s question.
  6. At the same time, students don’t always need to directly interact with their group members. I once asked students to each post a short analysis of a scene from a film we watched, identifying a list of cinematic elements in their chosen scene. They were asked not to choose a scene another student in their group had already chosen, but there was no actual responding to each other.
  7. Remember that students get tired of online courses. Having a full slate of online courses can easily mean writing some sort of discussion posts for 4–5 courses a week. From the instructor perspective, this can seem reasonable, since these posts make up for some of the time students would normally spend in class. But students get tired of feeling like they are constantly “performing.” I stress to students that I do not expect polished, brilliant work on their weekly tasks, and I use grading rubrics for the task that reflect this expectation.

Although I look forward to being back in the physical classroom, I’ve found asynchronous courses to be possibly more intellectually stimulating for students than the in-person courses I taught previously (particularly very large ones). I think a big part of this is due to these tasks, which require students to put their ideas into coherent, directed written form each week and engage with each other.

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