February 4 2006
E-Coaching Tip 2: More on Online Discussion Experiences
One of the fall, 2005 e-coaching tips focused on the Why and How of Using
Discussion Areas. The five-part FAQ on that topic is included in the latter
part of this message in case you missed it or if you would like to review
questions such as guidelines for student responses.
A recent article in the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks (June,
2004) by William Pelz has more hints and concrete examples for setting
up discussion boards and getting students involved. The article is structured
around three of his favorite Principles of effective online pedagogy and
is freely accessible at the journal site for just a quick no-fee registration.
Here are his three Principles for effective online learning. See if you use any of these.
Principle #1: Let the Students do (most of) the Work.
This is a solid theoretical Principle since the faculty already have developed expertise in their respective fields, and we want the students to develop the expertise! Some of the strategies he describes include (a) student-led discussions; (b) students finding and discussing relevant and new web resources; (c) peer assistance, where students work in small teams, and (d) students grading their own assignments, and (e) case-study analyses.
Principle #2: Interactivity is the Heart and Soul of Effective Asynchronous Learning
Pelz's second Principle is one that I like to call the "balanced-dialogue
design Principle," This Principle strives to balance faculty to student
dialogue, with student-to-student dialogue, with student to individual
resources dialogue. Pelz provides some concrete examples of how to do
In elaborating on this Principle, Pelz reminds us that "Interaction is not just discussion. Students can be required to interact with one another, with the professor, with the text, with the Internet, with the entire class, in small groups or teams, one-on-one with a partner, etc. In addition to discussing the course content, students can interact regarding assignments, problems to solve, case studies, lab activities, etc."
Principle #3: Strive for Presence
The Principle of virtual presence was the topic of the last e-coaching
tip and reiterates the value of creating an online community -- arising
from the presence not only of the faculty, but the presence of the students
as well. Pelz describes three types of presence -- Social Presence, Cognitive
Presence, or Teaching Presence -- from the work of Garrison, D.R., Anderson,
T., and Archer, W. (2000) A working definition of each of these three
types of presence follows.
Social Presence: Social presence is achieved in a community of
learning by faculty and students projecting their personal characteristics
into the discussion so they become "real people."
Cognitive Presence: The extent to which the professor and the
students are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained discourse
(discussion) in a community of inquiry.
Teaching Presence: Teaching presence is the facilitation and direction
of cognitive and social processes to achieve personally meaningful and
educationally worthwhile learning outcomes."
The full citation is:
Pelz, W. (2004). "(My) Three Principles of Effective Online Pedagogy." JALN (Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks ) 8(3).
E-Coaching Tip: Online Discussions -- Part One of Three: Why and How of Using Discussion Areas
1. How should I use the online discussion areas of Blackboard? What type of class activities are they good for?
The purpose of planned discussions in an online course is the same as
it is in a classroom-based course. Discussion activities provide a way
for learners to process, analyze and synthesize information. Many class
activities are "receptive" activities in which students are
reading, listening and taking notes while identifying key points and recording
examples, etc. Discussion activities give students a chance to reflect
on receptive activities, say what they think and know, and respond to
other students' ideas. Often it is only when students are responding to
a question or to another students' posting do they begin to know what
they think or know, or sometimes, more importantly, what they don't know.
Bottom line -- discussion activities give students a chance to integrate incoming knowledge with their existing knowledge structures. Think of discussions as a time for student to practice, to think and to develop ideas with the other students. We often talk about developing a learning community. Discussion activities can help develop a learning community by providing time and opportunity to explore and develop ideas collaboratively. These types of activities can help crystallize students' thoughts before exam time and be a tool for developing critical thinking abilities.
2. How are questions for online discussions different from questions in class discussions?
A primary distinction between online discussion questions and class discussion
questions is that online discussion questions are not spontaneous. Online
discussion questions are planned out in detail in advance. One reason
this is important is that it is difficult to modify the posted questions
once a discussion has begun. Planning questions in advance also helps
to focus on questions related to the desired skills and behaviors of a
A good design approach is to focus a discussion question or set of questions on a topic that includes a group of two-three or more core concepts as applied in various scenarios. This helps students build knowledge frameworks around the core concepts, and link this new knowledge to existing knowledge.
3. How many discussion questions should be posted in a course each week?
As with many questions, the answer to "how many" is that "It
depends." It depends on whether questions are short answer essay
questions that require students to apply core concepts in specific professional
situations; if the questions are more complex, requiring students to think
deeply about what they think, or problem-solving questions that require
students to search out new relevant information and develop or work with
scenarios. Also, some questions often require students to respond to and
evaluate the postings from the other students.
Another consideration is the number of other assignments and activities due in that week. For short-answer essay questions, a general rule of thumb is three discussion questions per week, if there are no other assignments due in the week. For more complex questions, one discussion question per week is probably realistic. For those weeks when major projects or exams are scheduled, there may be no discussion questions. In those weeks, students may use the general class posting areas for giving and receiving help.
4. Are there guidelines or requirements for student responses to discussion questions?
First, a point about scheduling and writing responses to questions. Learners
should be encouraged to post as early in the week as possible in order
to maximize the opportunity for peer and faculty response.
For example, one strategy for short answer essay questions is for learners
to be required to post a response to the question and then respond to
the responses of at least two other peers. In this scenario it is often
useful to require students to post their initial personal responses by
Wednesday, providing time in the latter part of the week for students
to respond to student postings.
Here are some additional guidelines that some faculty have found useful for guiding student responses to discussion questions. These guidelines can be posted to the discussion area as reminders to students.
5. What is the approximate best length of time for an online discussion, seminar or conference?
One week is the most common length of time, although, of course, a discussion board or conference involving an external expert may be shorter, such as 3-5 days. On the other hand, discussions boards with complex topics might be open or run for longer, up to two weeks.
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