For the past year, I’ve been running an online postgraduate programme – the MA in Strategic Studies. This was very much a leap into the unknown for me, as I had had some experience with teaching blended classes, but the fully online format was new to me. One of the apprehensions I had before the MA started was how we could successfully replicate postgraduate-level discussion online. At MA level in History, the focus tends to be very much on seminars that are dominated by student-led discussion. The back-and-forth of classroom conversation is one of the most intellectually enriching things of any postgraduate programme and is vital in building a sense of community. So how would we replicate this in an environment where our students were largely busy professionals, who were working across four different time zones, checking in on different days of the week and had different work schedules?
In fact, my fears were misplaced. The online discussions were probably the most successful part of the programme and our online students ended up having conversations that were just as lively as those that were taking place in the physical classroom in other programmes. In fact, in some ways, the online students were more likely to take part in conversations, as silence online is much more obvious and noticeable than the student who simply keeps to themselves down the back of a classroom. Simply put, online discussions are just like ordinary classroom conversations, but with their own particular rhythm and feel. The discussions unspool at a more leisurely pace, and you don’t necessarily see the same rapid back and forth as you do in a traditional classroom. The up-side of this is that the responses are often deeply considered, very nuanced and thorough. Students take the time to think about what they’re going to say, will ground their responses in the readings and will often link out to other resources, things that they can’t do in a regular classroom.
The worry we initially had was that students would simply write their responses, log out and then check back in again a week later, but we found that by mandating that students respond to each other, we were able to create a real sense of community. Students did engage with each other, challenge each other, and reinforce particular points that they thought were worthwhile. Apart from requiring a minimum number of responses to others (usually two per week), other effective techniques we used included the ‘starter-wrapper’ approach, where one student was given the responsibility of opening the week’s discussion thread and setting out their take on the readings and the key issues, and another was given the task of writing the final post in the thread, drawing together the various themes that came up in the discussion and summarising the flow of the debate.
In terms of instructor presence, we found it important to strike a balance, by taking care to validate and encourage student participation and to steer the conversation where necessary, but also being careful not to overwhelm the conversation by constantly posting or replying to every single post. If the initial prompting questions were well constructed – in that they pushed students to engage with the readings, videos and/or lecture material – and were open-ended enough to allow students the leeway to bring their own views into the conversation, it turned out that there was less need for intervention from the instructors, as students were keeping the conversation on track on their own. This was especially true the deeper into a module we got, as students became more and more comfortable interacting with each other online.
In short, the online discussion board can be an incredibly effective teaching tool. Done well, it allows students the space to get to know each other and to engage with the material in very rewarding ways. At its best, online discussion allows students to think deeply about their subject, to practice their writing skills on a weekly basis, and to enrich everyone’s understanding of the discussion topic by using hyperlinks, multimedia and other resources to help illustrate their points. By paying attention to the fact that online discussion is simply a variant of normal classroom conversation with its own particular rhythm and quirks, instructors can help facilitate a conversation that’s as rewarding for them as it is for the students.