Have you up-skilled through a university or other higher education institution sometime over the past few years? Chances are that the course was online and that one of the assessment requirements was ‘participation’. Did that frustrate you? If yes, you are not alone. Compulsory participation in higher education courses frustrates many students. Remove the assessment requirement and the discussion boards are (almost) empty.
Does that mean students don’t want to collaborate? False premise. Most students want to work with other students, yet these environments fail to inspire.
Let me explain.
Have a look at the following discussion board question from an urban planning course: “Looking at the map of [insert name region], discuss possible locations for people who may eventually commute to work in [insert name city]”
It’s a typical ‘application’ question, it brings real-life to the learning process, and it asks the students to apply what they know to a new or different situation… so all good right? Wrong.
Say there are 40 students. The first student to post (a good ‘learning’ strategy to have! – pardon the sarcasm) will probably come up with something interesting. Perhaps – if we’re lucky – up to 6 students will be able to post something that others will find useful to read, maybe bring a new perspective. But then what? Responses become déja-vu. It gets harder and harder for every student to come up with something they are excited to share. Most likely they’ll find an answer in the forum that reflects what they wanted to say. It becomes an exercise in semantics: how to say the same using different words so you’re not caught copying other people’s ideas. Irritating!
Why is that? Although the instruction says ‘discuss’, this isn’t a good start for a real discussion. The question leads to a collection of individual answers. The tutor may throw in some probing to ‘deepen’ the thinking but – regardless of the good intentions – this doesn’t lead to a deeper discussion, let alone true collaboration and more meaningful learning.
In essence, unless your discussion is about a truly controversial issue with opposing views, nothing exciting will happen in that discussion board. So people don’t participate, unless they have to. That’s why the threat is considered necessary: if you don’t say anything you won’t get your grade. And then the ‘reply twice’ instruction is added to pretend the students are talking to each other. Huh?
So how then do you get a real and meaningful online discussion going?
To start, stop using the word “discuss”. Use “solve” instead. That changes the whole activity: your design of it and the learners’ approach to it. A discussion should be a means to an end. If we discuss just for the sake of discussing, it gets boring very quickly. What’s the point?
Instead, apply problem-based learning principles when conceptualizing what your students will DO (not just talk about). Ask yourself the following two key questions:
- When students will apply X skills, what does a typical professional environment look like? (this is your context)
- In this real-life situation, what tangible(s) do people typically produce when they apply these skills? An action plan? A budget? A presentation? A brief? (this is your deliverable)
Turn your whole group discussion into inspiring team tasks with a plenary to keep the whole group buzz going while everyone is hard at work. All asynchronous. Learn the nitty-gritty of designing engaging team tasks and you’ll be amazed at how this drastically improves participation and completion rates. When we are serious about applying adult learning principles there is no need to add assessment threats. Let’s make our activities exciting instead.