I wanted to talk about asynchronous discussions in online learning because they are the most commonly used tool in online learning apart from lecture capture videos (which are really terrible.)
The problem with the asynchronous discussions in online learning is that if you build it they won’t come. You can’t just put some readings up or a discussion prompt and expect it to happen so I want to talk a little bit about how I’ve come to use them.
The weekly topic cycle that I have is a two or two-and-a-half post cycle and it goes through a series of steps and it’s important that you know these. The most common and the simplest framework for remembering this is TEIR: Trigger Exploration Integration and Resolution.
That comes from the Community of Inquiry framework. There are other more complicated frameworks but they all follow the same general pattern and you need to have some understanding of those if you’re gonna make asynchronous discussions work.
You need to choose some readings. I generally go with three. I’m lucky my class sizes are small, rarely more than thirty so with three I can get a reasonable distribution of readings around the class group. If you have a larger class, if you 300 people you may need to divide the class into subgroups in order to avoid the problem of people being intimidated by the person who posts first and feeling they have nothing to add to the discussion.
You need to take a limited number of readings. Remember that students, particularly those who’ve come to college in first year, can’t read academic articles:- they’ve not generally learned how to do that. In practical terms they have other courses. They have real-life most of them have jobs now; there’s a limit to how much you can expect them to read so you need to bear this in mind in picking the readings.
In any given cycle the first thing I would do is I would identify where they are, particularly in the first week of the course so in terms of evaluation of sources and location of sources ask them about their own search strategies. I would ask them to make notes. If it’s a game design course about what their knowledge and experience of gaming is.
I want to get that written down and then having made a note of that to then go and explore the readings so these two things come together for the first posting in the week: some identification or statement of where they’re starting from and then a discussion of how that matches up with what they found in the readings.
Then the second half of the week I would ask them to read across the whole discussion thread and review what other people have said and reply to some of them: draw things together, look for common ground, look for differences, look for problems and issues. Try to integrate the discussion together and find things that will knit it together so that you can have the resolution.
In terms of feedback and interaction you have to be active. You have to be encouraging as the posting goes on. Remember they can’t see you nodding in agreement when they post something so you’ve got to give in the discussion forums the sort of signals that we take for granted in a face-to-face class discussion. Use your replies to the threads to draw attention to interesting points building towards the second phase of the discussion: the integration. Avoid being negative never say “No!” Try using phrases like “Yes but//”” or “Yes and…” to move the discussion along. Build the narrative with the students very much in the way that a good gamesmaster in the D&D game will do.
The resolution then, bringing the discussion together. When I’m teaching a blended class we do that in class. The students know this is coming, they’re generally graded on their discussion posts so this is part of an online shared collaborative process so it’s not a surprise to them when we come into class and I put the discussions right up on the projector and go through it and pick out the interesting the challenging the good posts as examples of how to do it right.
Never pick out the bad ones never highlight something and say that it’s bad in front of the class do that privately if people are struggling but you need to get a couple of weeks in there before you start helping people out with that.
If it’s a totally online course then that resolution and that drawing together will have to happen when you create a link to the next week’s topic and the resolution of the discussion. If you organized your sequence of topics well it should lead from one to the next so the things that emerge from one week’s readings should feed into the next topic and set up the next discussion topic in a nice easy sort of link. That’s your your Trigger Exploration Integration Resolution cycle.
When you get a couple of weeks in to using a synchronous discussions as a mode of teaching it is only fair that you explain to the students how this works. Explain the cycle show them some of the research on the Community of Inquiry or the other models of online discussion and the research. There’s quite a lot of research out there where people have analyzed online asynchronous discussions to see how they work and how well or how badly they work. There’s lots of examples from many disciplines that you can actually explain this to the students, give them some of the research to read, help them to understand how the game works so they can play the game a little bit better.
Increasingly these days we’re operating in a world where we’re going to have to do a lot more work online so therefore your students as part of their professional competence once they get out into the big world out there need to be able to lead and moderate and grow and make online discussions work successfully so you need to explain to them how it works.