Rethinking Online Discussions for Student Engagement

Faculty often complain that students do not engage deeply in online discussions. Students complain as well, feeling that online discussions too often represent hoops to jump through, with little apparent connection to the learning goals of the course. Online discussions are very different from face-to-face discussions and these differences require us to design and facilitate them differently. Attempts to use the same discussion prompts as you would in a face-to-face classroom are likely to fall flat. Instead, they require thoughtful design to engage students in deep exploration of content.

As a first step, you should be explicit with students about how discussions support the learning outcomes in your course. Successful online discussions serve one or more of these purposes:

  1. Knowledge or skill-building
  2. Application of knowledge or skills
  3. Perspective-sharing

Importance of the discussion prompt

Most discussions fail because the discussion prompt does not engage students in higher-level cognitive collaboration with peers. The prompt must not only provide a focus for student thinking; it must also encourage or require collaboration. While you can require or encourage collaboration via instructions or rubrics, it is ideal to structure discussion prompts that have collaboration embedded within them. This is most easily done by asking students to apply knowledge together through problem-solving via scenarios or case studies, by sharing “field work” (field observations, interviews), or through having learners post examples that require classmates to review or answer specific questions from classmates. It can be helpful to create prompts that require unique initial student posts and then to guide students in responding to those initial posts.  If you are using discussions to build or apply knowledge and skills, they should be challenging; otherwise, students will see no reason to collaborate on something they may feel they can achieve on their own.

Other design features

While the discussion prompt is the key to engaging discussions, there are several other considerations. In addition to clarifying the purpose of discussions in your course, you should communicate your expectations for student performance and collaboration as well as your role in discussions. A set of criteria or a rubric can help in clarifying expectations, but be sure to include collaborative behavior. While some instructions can be generic, others should be specific to each discussion. For example, you may have specific suggestions for how students should respond to initial posts that differ for different discussions.

Facilitation and Feedback

Whether you or your students take part in the facilitation of discussions, you’ll want to monitor quality and interaction. Feedback early on in a course should inform students of your judgement of how well the discussions are serving their intended purpose and how students’ behavior can shift to improve collaboration. Feedback to individuals within each discussion should be restrained, while whole-class or group feedback can be more expansive, as you’ve then allowed students the space to interact freely. Consider using audio or video feedback tools such as Kaltura or Kaltura CaptureSpace Lite, as such tools can increase instructor presence and save time typing long responses.

Design and Facilitation Guide

Creating engaging online discussions requires careful and creative thought, particularly regarding the prompt or question. It also requires a comprehensive set of supports that should be pre-built into the course. This two-page guide, “Engaging Online Discussions: Design and Facilitation”, is intended to be a concise and comprehensive resource to support the design and facilitation of your online discussions.

For more assistance with the design of online discussions, contact elis@lesley.edu. Our instructional designers would be happy to work with you to think through your use and design of online discussions.

 

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New and Improved myLesley Features

The myLesley upgrade brought with it several new and improved features designed to enhance the teaching and learning experience. These features are designed to save you time, improve efficiency and easy of use, provide a much improved mobile experience, improve accessibility of your content and Blackboard functionality, and enhance assessments and grade capabilities.

Discussion Board “Replies to Me”
A new count and filter identifies unread replies to your Discussion Board posts, allowing you to quickly and easily keep up with large Discussion forums.

screenshot of discussion board replies to me

 

Drag and Drop Files
Easily drag and drop files from your computer to the hot spot in the Attach Files area to upload them. Students can also drag and drop files to upload their assignments.

screenshot of dragging and dropping assignment file

 

Collaborate Ultra Available in Groups
You now have the ability to allow Collaborate Ultra webinar sessions to Groups pages. If allowed, students can meet online, share content and use the whiteboard, as well as record their online meetings. For more information see Group Tools or Blackboard Collaborate Ultra: Getting Started.

 

Improved Mobile Device Navigation 
The new myLesley theme includes navigation improvements for both the system and course menus. When you access myLesley on your mobile device, the navigation appears a hamburger menu (three horizontal lines) for persistent access from screen to screen. Within a course, the menu opens and closes more easily with fixed location action.

screenshot of mobile view

 

More Responsive Blogs and Journals
Blogs and Journals have been better optimized for use on mobile devices. Posts and comments will render on smaller devices and options for filtering posts or navigating groups or users will appear below currently viewed posts.

New Inline Grading Tool
The new inline grading tool, New Box View, is now available in myLesley. This streamlined grading tool accepts more file types. For more information see Grading myLesley Assignments or view the tutorial video below.

 

More Efficient Grade Center Cleanup
You can now easily clean up your Grade Center, including bulk deleting grade columns. Manual and calculated columns are removed completely, and columns associated with gradable items are cleared of attempt and grade data but remain in the Grade Center.

Before deleting columns, check very carefully that it’s the right column. Deleted grade columns cannot be recovered. For more information see Organize Grade Data.

 

Submission Receipts
Once you submit an assignment, the Review Submission History page appears with information about your submitted assignment and a success message with a confirmation number. For assignments with multiple attempts, you receive a different number for each submission. You will also receive an email with your confirmation number and details each time you submit coursework.

 

Improved Grading with Rubrics
When grading with rubrics, the instructor can save feedback and the content will remain saved when changing the rubric view from in-line to full screen. For more information on rubrics see myLesley Rubrics.

 

Missing Coursework Reminders
You can now send email reminders to your students directly from Grade Center columns to remind them about missing coursework.

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Adding Video to Your Online Discussions

Are your text-based online discussions seeming a bit dry? Do you feel like something is missing or that you aren’t getting a good sense of the people you are conversing with. Would you like to do a little community building in the early days of your course? Perhaps you should add a little video to your discussion.

The Advantages

It can be difficult to envision the real person behind the text. Video can make it easy to connect and to literally put a face to the idea. Not to mention the huge amount of information we convey with expression and tone. Being able to hear the other person’s voice and to see their face and expressions can allow you to get a fuller sense of their personality. Do they have an accent? Smile a lot? Have a lot of plants in their office? At times, it can even provide more insight into the content they are delivering. Did the humorous tone they delivered their comment with completely change the meaning?

The Disadvantages

One of the biggest disadvantages of video is that it’s time-based. A three-minute video takes three minutes to watch. Multiply that three minutes across many posts and it can take a bit of time to view everyone’s post. Also, unlike text-based discussion, you can’t quickly skim to review or find a detail. Many instructors set time limits on video posts. This makes the content more manageable and helps to cut down on rambling posts. Students should be encouraged to create a script or outline of the points they wish to address before recording.

earbuds with micVideo can also present accessibility issues. Hearing-impaired students will need captions or transcripts to participate. It’s also important to have good audio quality and for the person to speak clearly so they can be understood. Fortunately, the audio quality issue can usually be solved by using a microphone such as the earbuds with a microphone that come with many cellphones. 

You Don’t Have to Choose?

“Literacy comes in a variety of exciting flavors,” argues Joyce Valenza, of Rutgers University’s School of Communication. “In the course of a semester-long course, this is not a binary decision [between text and video]. In life, as in school, we read and write across platforms for multiple purposes, for a variety of audiences, using different strategies.”

When choosing to do a video or text-based discussion, it doesn’t have to be either/or, even in the same discussion. Providing information in different formats can provide varied, boost attention, and help reinforce the information delivered. Students can learn to present information in different modes or choose the method they feel the most comfortable with. We all learn in different ways. They can also use their cell phone cameras to share an experience or location via video and describe it in text.

How to Create a Video Discussion

There are a couple of options for having a video-based discussion board.

VoiceThread

VoiceThread is a multimedia discussion tool that allows students and instructors to have a conversation around media such as images, documents and videos. They can post comments on the “slide” using text, audio and video allowing them to express themselves in the mode they feel strongest.

 

To learn more about how to use VoiceThread in your course, check out the help resources.

Kaltura Media

Want to stick with the traditional discussion board in myLesley, but have the option for video. Try Kaltura. It’s integrated directly into myLesley. Anywhere you have access to the text editor you can create a video.

mashup tool in the myLesley text editor            record from webcam

Learn how to create a Kaltura post at our support site.

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The Emergence of Learning Analytics: Evidence-based Decision Making

Learning Analytics is a fast-growing field in education focused on the use of data to improve teaching and learning. Learning management systems are starting to include dashboard tools with visual data displays, products like ALEKS use adaptive learning technologies in concert with analytics tools to provide students with personalized learning experiences, and Columbia University has recently established a Master’s degree in Learning Analytics.

While definitions vary, the focus of Learning Analytics is usually data that instructors and students can use, particularly during instruction, to positively impact learning. Below is an example of a dashboard in the open source learning management system called “Desire2Learn” showing course data for one student:

LA-D2Ldashboard

A different example of data used in teaching is shown below. This table is from Kaltura, which is integrated with myLesley (Blackboard). It shows data related to views of a video in an online professional development seminar facilitated in May, 2016. Such information can allow instructors to know which students are viewing the media and how much they are viewing:

 

Kaltura Data

A final example from the open source LMS called “Sakai” shows the nature of student interaction in online discussions through a social network diagram. This data can be used early in a course to find out which students are less involved, which could be future group leaders, and the level of collaboration in the discussions. As a course is running, an instructor might want to use this data to refine or redirect discussion activities, and enhance the course’s interactivity. This kind of useful information is much harder to discern using the typical discussion tools in learning management systems.

LA-Sakai

We have no doubt that you will continue to hear more about Learning Analytics as the technology you use to support your teaching integrates data that is more visually accessible and actionable. Making use of this information in the right way can only enhance the learning experience you deliver – making it more targeted and responsive.

To find out more about Learning Analytics that are currently available to in myLesley, contact elis@lesley.edu.

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VoiceThread: Peer Review and Advanced Commenting Features (Webinar Recording)

On January 20, Sadie Anderson from VoiceThread conducted a training webinar for Lesley faculty, focusing on peer review and the advanced commenting features now available in VoiceThread. A recording of the webinar is below.

For more information on VoiceThread’s new commenting tools, see:
Private Commenting
Threaded Commenting
Direct Reply
Comment Moderation

Want to learn more about using VoiceThread in your course? Sign up for one of VoiceThread’s free online workshops or view a recording from a past workshop: https://voicethread.com/workshops

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