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Module 4: Developing Reciprocity and Cooperation Among Students

The Discussion Board is Your Friend

As may be evidenced by the connection of discussion forums to this website, discussion-oriented learning is a valuable aspect of distance education. CMS-based course websites offer a variety of features related to discussion boards and message threads. Blogs and wikis offer comments sections where viewers can post responses and messages. Even in the early days of the internet, listservs and message boards were popular because they helped people carry on conversations from a distance.

In online learning, you can use discussion for a variety of activities. Getting the right kind of responses from students, however, needs some effort on your part. As the instructor, you want to motivate students to participate and write substantive messages without veering off-topic or delving into destructive or unproductive responses. Ideally, the students should be pulled into discussion while maintaining a focus on the learning objectives for the subject matter.

It will help your students to place importance on class discussion if you yourself remain consistent in your rules for discussion participation, encourage thoughtful messages from students, and monitor the volley in case you need to address any "flames" or negative communication. Emphasize to your students the importance of communication and dialog as a way to learn in your own communication to them and course policies. Also, be sure to give enough weight discussion participation by making it a significant portion of students' grades for the semester.

Here are some suggestions for use of the discussion forums:

1. Controversial Topics - Ask questions that relate to controversial topics within the subject of your course. Let students express their opinions, though you will want to clearly define your policies for posting in the discussion forums. In general, these policies usually discourage negative or destructive comments and ask students to craft well-thought-out messages that aren't too long (1-2 screens of text space is plenty) or too short (no "Me too!" replies). If you have a large class size, it may be easier to assign students to smaller groups for discussion so everyone isn't overwhelmed with a massive inbox.

2. Exploring Web Resources - Post a link to a website you want your students to visit. Assigning different websites to different students, or splitting them into smaller groups to assign different websites, can help control the amount of research or articles any one student has to read. The small groups can report back a summary to the whole class, or students writing about different websites in full-class discussion provide summaries of what they read so everyone benefits from all the articles.

3. Peer Review - Students can share drafts of assignments or papers in a discussion forum and share feedback in peer review exercises. This not only helps them improve their own work through collaboration, but also eases your task of grading the final drafts by catching errors that you otherwise would have had to spend time assessing.

4. Group Work - You can use discussion forums as a venue for students to work together on a group project. Wikis are also useful for this, though forums place a stronger emphasis on the conversational aspect of discussing ideas for a project.

With imagination, you can probably discover a much wider array of possibilities for discussion boards. As long as your activity gets students "talking", you'll be helping them learn your subject matter in a way that lecturing and reading text alone cannot. The page on Efficient Discussion Management will address suggestions for saving you time while you're reading and managing student discussion.

Exercising Your Knowledge
How would you design a discussion-based activity for students in your course? Think about the subject you teach or are planning to teach. Maybe you want your students to research online resources to share with each other, or debate topics in library management. Maybe you want them to work together in small groups to create something tangible to help online librarians. As you go through the pages in this module, think about how you could fit interactive student-student learning activities into your course. You may want to come back to this page after reading the pages on group work later in this module.

After you've thought about what you would like to have your students do, put together a draft for an assignment that requires students to communicate with each other. Clarify what you want them to do, how you want them to do it, how the assignment relates to learning objectives you have developed for the course, and how much time they will have to work on it. Post your draft in the WISE Interactive Student Activities forum.

Responding to at least two others' messages in this forum is strongly encouraged to facilitate discussion and peer feedback. You can also use this forum to discuss any issues related to discussion-based learning, online group work, or other communication-based online activities.

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