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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. www.sloan-c.org/publications/jaln/v8n3/v8n3_pelz.asp

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 this.

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 Tips

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 course.

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.

  • Postings should be evenly distributed during the discussion period, rather than concentrated on one day or at the beginning and/or end of the discussion time.
  • Postings should be a minimum of one short paragraph and a maximum of two paragraphs (This applies to short-answer essay questions.)
  • Avoid postings that are limited to 'I agree' or 'great idea', etc. If you agree or disagree with a posting then say why you agree by supporting your statement with concepts from the readings or by bringing in a related example or experience.
  • Address the question or topic as much as possible, keeping on topic and not letting the discussion stray
  • Incorporate where possible, quotes from the articles that support your postings and include appropriate reference and page numbers.
  • Recognize and respond to others' responses to create threads of thought in a discussion, showing how ideas are related and linked.
  • Weave into your posting, where possible, related prior personal knowledge gained from experience, prior coursework or work experience, discussions, and readings, etc.
  • Use proper etiquette when posting, including proper language, spelling, grammar, etc. similar to the tone, etc. that you would use within a professional environment.

 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.

E-Coaching Tip 2: More on Online Discussion Experiences



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Revised May 20 2013
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2013