It is common for students to think of online classroom discussions as being busywork. Some professors, too, see these as not very important and something to check off. Yet, online discussions can be important in various ways, including preparing for class papers. Yet, not all professors approach online discussions the same and some professors have never given much thought to the purpose of online discussions. Thus, it is important to remember that the approach I discuss here may not fit all courses.
Approach to Online Discussions
I view online discussions as similar to live discussions in the classroom. They serve a different purpose from essays and scholarly papers. When I am teaching in the classroom, my goal is to create a safe space where students can explore ideas. The same is true for online discussions. My hope is that students will play with ideas that they are not even sure they agree with. This is the exploration phase of developing one’s scholarly position. When it becomes too structured, then it limits the ability to freely explore ideas.
The online discussions are a place to receive feedback and compare one’s own view with other viewpoints that may not agree. For this to occur at optimal levels, it is important to maintain a dialogue approach rather than a debate approach. While it can be good to compare and even critique ideas in this forum, the overall goal is exploratory and developing one’s ideas. If it becomes about determining who is right, then the purpose has shifted and it limits the ability to attain the exploratory purpose of the online discussions.
In my experience, there are three common mistakes that I see frequently in classroom discussions:
1. Not Understanding the Professor’s Purpose. In my courses I often clarify the purpose of online discussions in the syllabus, the online discussion forum, and a video for the course, yet it is still common for students to not understand the purpose behind how I design the online discussions. This typically is a failure to read the syllabus and course materials! Yet, it can also be a function of following the expectations of previous professors. Always be sure to read the professors guidelines! If you do not understand the purpose after doing this, ask!
2. Summarizing. Summarizing is the most common error I experience. I have read the course readings and (hopefully) so have the other students. It is not very engaging or productive for anyone to read numerous summaries of the required reading. While I expect students to demonstrate they have done the reading, this can be done without summarizing. This can be done by engaging the required reading through critically thinking about the material, applying concepts to the real world, and comparing the ideas in the required reading to other theories and concepts.
3. Writing an Essay. Writing a short essay is different than what I expect from an online course discussion. An essay is more structured and should cite sources. In my courses, these will also be clearly labeled as an essay assignment! With online discussions, the dialogue should be freer. For example, in an essay referencing Rollo May’s The City for Myth, I would expect a citation in APA style with name and date in the text along with a reference section at the end. In an online discussion, my preference would be to note the idea was from May, but no citation with date or reference section is needed. In a live classroom discussion, it would not be necessary to try to verbally cite your sources in APA style! Yet, it is best to let people know where you are drawing your information from.
The Developmental Purpose
With a scholarly paper or an essay, it is important to engage the scholarly literature, support your assertions, and think through your ideas before presenting them. With the online discussions, you are playing with ideas, seeing what fits, and seeing what is important to you. When this is done well, it supports the development of later scholarly writing.
As a scholar, researcher, and writer, most of the ideas that I write about for conference papers, journal articles, and books were first explored in dialogues with colleagues. Through these discussions I prepared the ideas and thought through them. Much of what I explored with my colleagues was not included in the final product because it did not fit with my thinking as I developed my ideas further. Yet, there are important aspects of the paper that originated in these dialogues and were refined through the conversations. Good scholarship does not occur in isolation–it occurs in a context and a community that supports the development of ideas. My hope is that the classroom discussions–whether online or in person–serve a similar purpose. They help us refine and develop the ideas that will become part of our later scholarship.