Rising above the LMS: Hacking online discussion

One of the ironies of online discussion is that it is effective in spite of itself.

In almost a decade of online teaching, I’ve seen beautiful things happen in online discussion forums. My students have shared remarkable insights and I’m routinely struck by the wit and sincerity and vulnerability I see in online discussion. Do these things happen every day? Of course not. But neither do they happen on a daily basis in our face-to-face classes, if we’re being truly honest with ourselves. Those who continue to assume that meaningful, transformative discussion can’t happen online are doing just that…assuming.

There’s no denying, though, that threaded discussions can be clunky, hard to follow, and a chore to grade. Those of us who have tried to use them in a class of more than 15 also know that they don’t scale well—in much the same way that discussion doesn’t scale well in face-to-face settings. On top of all that, the threaded discussion can disadvantage students who, perhaps because of job or childcare responsibilities, can’t contribute early. By the time that these students are able to post, they may have to work harder to make original contributions.

Breaking large classes into groups is one mitigating strategy, but it tackles only the scaling challenge. Here are two strategies you might adopt to hack the threaded discussion and deepen students’ engagement in online courses.

Get fishy

The “fishbowl” discussion technique has been around for some time. In the face-to-face version of this strategy, a subset of students circle up in the middle of the classroom and serve as discussants (“fish”) while the remaining students observe the discussion from outside the circle (the “fishbowl”). While the strategy winnows the number of discussants, its real strength lies in its metacognitive richness. Unhindered by the pressure to develop their own responses, observers begin to think critically not simply about content, but about the nature and tactics of discussion itself.

coy fish swimming in pondIshikay9 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I adapted the fishbowl model in my online course last Spring to great effect. At the beginning of the term I notified students which weeks they would serve as fish and which weeks they would be observers. Fish were responsible for engaging a prompt in a threaded discussion. As in conventional online discussion forums, I provided students with clear expectations. They were to: 1) demonstrate sustained engagement (i.e., engage the discussion as it evolves over time), 2) root their contributions in the module’s texts, and 3) actively engage the thoughts of their peers.

Students outside the fishbowl worked in pairs to evaluate what they saw happening in the discussion thread. Pairs created a shared Google doc and co-developed short responses to the following questions:

  1. What were the key points made in the discussion? Did those points align with your understanding of the [key text or concept]?
  2. What worked well in the discussion in terms of argumentation, tone, discussion strategy, etc.? Explain.
  3. What didn’t work so well? Explain.

I asked observers to conduct all communication in the Google doc itself and to delete any notes and conversation before submitting the link to their final draft in the Canvas LMS. I was able to use the “Version History” function in Google to see the students’ collaboration and to trace how the final observation emerged.

The fishbowl model helped declutter the discussion, affording “fish” space to probe ideas more deeply. Because it required observers to think intentionally about how discussion works, the model strengthened observers’ effectiveness when it came their turn to be “fish.” By the middle of the course, discussion posts were generally more focused, evidence-based, insightful, and inclusive. In an age when constructive communication is at a premium—particularly in digital spaces—helping students focus on the “how” of discussion is as important as helping them decide what to communicate.

From Fish to APHIDS

Another alternative to the conventional threaded discussion is what I’m dubbing the APHIDS technique.

APHIDS stands for:

APHIDS builds on the “think-pair-share” collaborative strategy and is designed to work in online learning environments, although it could also work in physical classrooms. Here’s how it works:

Students begin by posting one question they have about an assigned text (Ask). Reading through the posts, students identify a peer with the same or similar question and team up (Pair). In a shared virtual space (e.g. a Google doc), the pair develops a plausible answer to their question (Hypothesize). Next, they collaborate to generate a list of everything they know that relates in some way to their question, revisiting key course materials along the way (Inventory). Evaluating the evidence they’ve inventoried, the pair determines whether their hypothesis remains plausible (Determine). Finally, they create and share with the entire class a discussion post that includes the original question and hypothesis, as well as an explanation of how the hypothesis weathered scholarly scrutiny (Share). Students read each other’s posts and share their own thoughts and ideas.

The result is an inherently collaborative discussion process, driven by student needs, that encourages higher order thinking skills. The model cuts the number of people posting in the thread by at least half and ensures that posts are unique, analytical, and evidence-based.

APHIDS actually compels students to engage in two kinds of discussion—intimate discussion in which two people really explore and hash out possibilities; and more formal discussion with the entire class that focuses on sharing out and, to some extent, peer evaluation.

One of the things I like most about the APHIDS model is that it acknowledges that not every question has a discrete answer. Too often online discussion prompts simply ask students to post an answer, which is not at all conducive to generating that rich back-and-forth that is the heart of good discussion. APHIDS prioritizes asking questions, exploring possibilities, and weighing evidence. It signals that having questions—even unanswerable ones—is part and parcel of learning.

Reorienting the online threaded discussion

The discussion strategies I’ve outlined above really exploit the advantages of asynchronous online discussion. They provide students with opportunities to reflect upon the contributions of others, to consult evidence before making contributions of their own, and to connect with peers across space and time. Rather than coming up with something on the spot, students are encouraged to act intentionally and strategically.

Most importantly, these strategies effectively reorient the discussion away from a vertical structure—where students respond to the instructor-created prompt and, consequently, to the instructor herself. Instead, these strategies nurture a lateral structure in which students’ primary orientation is toward other students.

Those of us who think about online pedagogy rightfully worry about the degree to which our teaching practice is constrained by a learning management system we had little hand in creating. It’s certainly true that the models I’ve suggested here tackle what could be considered a structural challenge in online learning environments. But all discussions occur in environments limited by constraints. The barriers imposed on us by technology are no more or less daunting that the barriers we encounter in face-to-face learning environments. Steeled with an ethic of iteration—a core ethic of the online teaching and learning community—we don’t have to settle for convention. We can use what has value and iterate our way toward something even better.