Tired of blank faces when you ask the class for their thoughts on Tom Sawyer? How about when you ask if there are any questions about the long division lesson, and not a single student raises a hand? You can hardly get kids to pipe down when the morning bell rings, but ask the class a direct question and the first thing you hear is an awkward pause.
In-class discussion is an art, and you’ll probably spend most of your teaching career wondering how to keep kids engaged. Fortunately, in this age of the interweb, you can take advantage of online discussion forums to get the dialogue flowing.
Two Big Advantages of Using Online Discussion Forums:
- Time is on your side—In the classroom, you’re limited by the clock. There’s only so much time you can devote to class discussion. Students feel the time crunch even more keenly—they’ve got to compose a thoughtful response in mere seconds. And while thinking on one’s feet is a valuable skill, how much better would little Johnny’s answer be if he had more time to compose his ideas? Using discussion boards, students have the time they need to think of the best answer they can.
- Eliminate shyness—You’ve probably got some students who ace their tests, do a stellar job on homework, and never say a word in class. Maybe they don’t want to sound like a know-it-all, or maybe they’re afraid of saying the wrong answer in public. Whatever the reason, shyness can be an obstacle for some students. Taking your discussion online removes the social pressures of the classroom, encouraging your shy students to express themselves more freely.
If you want to incorporate online discussions into your class, you can find countless free options, including downloading a bulletin board program for your school’s server. If your school already uses resources like Moodle, Sakai, or Blackboard, the discussion forums are already built in. However, if your IT department isn’t very helpful, or if you just don’t want the headaches of installing a bunch of software, lots of sites will set up your board for free. Forumer is one good example—I set up a forum in less than five minutes (you can find many more services that will do that, also. If you’ve already got a system you like, let us know your favorite in the comments).
Once your board is ready to go, you can’t just give students a hyperlink and expect them to go all Lincoln-Douglas on you. It’s up to you, at least at the beginning, to start the conversation. You can do that effectively by incorporating a few tricks:
- Focus!—Give students a narrow, specific question to respond to. “What are your thoughts on the struggle of Native Americans?” is pretty vague. Narrow your focus to something like, “What were the ramifications of the 1879 Standing Bear v. Crook court case?” Or, present two sides to an issue and have them defend one or the other.
- Quality, not quantity—Posts must be substantive. It’s up to you whether you want to have a minimum posting requirement. Either way, students can’t simply reply to someone’s post and say, “I agree” in order to meet a posting quota. Even when replying to another student’s post, they must address the thread’s central question. *Note: Depending on the tech capabilities of your school or your students, you may want to make certain allowances for posting schedules.
- Consistency is key—Remember, the board is just a new place to hold the same conversation. Don’t tacitly encourage students to participate in one area but not the other by having separate expectations for the classroom and the online forum. Also, while you should allow for some informality on the forum, make sure that students are held to the same standards of politeness and civility as they are in class.
Not every course needs an online forum. But if you want to jump start class participation, or if you think students could benefit from the extra time a discussion board provides to compose their thoughts, give it a try. Chances are you’ll get more responses than you expected, and best of all, no more blank stares.—BILL FERRIS
What do you do to keep class discussions lively? Let us know in the comments.