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Discussion Forums in the Online Space

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TL;DR Ask Better Questions

Discussion Concussion

Several months ago, one of my shiny new colleagues approached me about speaking with grad students on implementing discussion forums in an online course. Here was my response:

I’ve been thinking hard about discussion in instructional design, looking for studies and patterns and tips, and though I’ve put those things in a course before, I haven’t done them in Canvas and I haven’t seen the result. Social learning is a messy sort of topic because while MOST students will post a discussion if you tell them to, constructing an experience where students actually feel the motivation to actually discuss and debate inside of an academic environment is both difficult to do and to guarantee. Also, social learning is just not something that you can ever force; though you can try to facilitate it.

All that to say that I’m having a really hard time in trying to get a handle on my own perspective on the topic and trying to distill that down. So I don’t think I could prepare anything for that.

So basically, I was very reticent to talk about effective online discussions, given my lack of experience. But I knew that respectful, enlightening, interesting online discussion can be facilitated. The comments, subreddit, and IRC for shows like the PBS Idea Channel show that people, random people, without having an external motivator (like a grade) will willingly engage in discussion and debate.

But I found myself unable to articulate “What’s the difference?”

It is What You Think it Is

My gut instinctual answer to that question was that, well “Idea Channel discusses more interesting topics and asks more interesting questions.” That seemed both right and wrong. I mean how could I say “well you should talk about more interesting stuff?” That wasn’t going to cut it.

More recently this month, in talking with another colleague in preparation for a microdesign session I’m going to be participating and presenting in, we got a bit off topic and I picked her brain about discussions and multiple choice questions (among other things) and she proposed that well-written multiple choice questions are a great way to encourage discussion. Here’s an example she gave:

A political science faculty member was covering laws created in Victorian England to try and reduce poverty. She was covering four different laws that were implemented to try and solve this problem and wanted to implement some group work and discussion (my colleague also has great thoughts on group work, but that’s for another post [and maybe a podcast episode!!]). So she split students into groups and, together, they had to come to a consensus about which law was the most effective and justify their reasons.

Then they had to hold up a card – a, b, c, or d (see that multiple choice come in!) – that represented their group’s consensus. The faculty member then asked student groups to explain their decision to another group, and vice versa. And wouldn’t you know, the group that chose law A is explaining their decision to the group that chose law C. The group that chose law C had a chance to argue their case, and in the meantime, the group that chose law D is waiting impatiently to defend their position. Here we had a multiple choice question that inspired interest, discussion and debate.

The key to craft a good question for this is using two components:

  • A multiple choice question were all of the answers work but one is MORE RIGHT than the others, and
  • Crafting a question that uses a superlative and encourages students to have a position and justify that decision (e.g. “Which law was the MOST effective at reducing poverty?”)

I’m loving this! So basically I was on the right track. The answer is, ask more interesting questions.

Why I think this Works

You might be thinking, “Was that really worth a post?” I’d say yes.

Generally when an online course (or even a face-to-face class) tries to implement a discussion, the process looks like this:

  • Read an article (or watch a video, or whatever)
  • Get in your groups and discuss what it was about or whether you like it (or your takeaways, or whatever)

Well, what does that invite? A student or two who actually try and get into the action and the rest just sort of nodding along. It’s a weak question. It’s not the sort of thing that would inspire real, thought discussion.

Interestingly, this has a great intersection with Julie Dirksen’s Design for How People Learn (which I’m currently learning). She mentions a lot of the same things. It’s important to craft interesting questions.

I think this is something that crosses the bounds of all industries. Whether you are in the academic or the corporate environment and you want to encourage discussion online, you MUST craft a better question.

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