Improving online discussions

by Stephanie Chasteen on June 17, 2012

I recently wrote a post on the Active Class blog about improving online discussions, so wanted to let readers know about that resource.

I’m in the middle of teaching an intensive summer course, which is a real time-eater.  I’ve used the online discussion boards in one way that is proving particularly useful.  At the beginning of every new topic (which in summer course, is every two days, or 3 hours of class), I post a “You as a Scientist” topic in the Desire to Learn discussion board.

The You as a Scientist assignments are meant to be short experiments or thought-provoking items that they can do at home, that relate to their reading.  For example, last week I had them take a piece of saran wrap, put it on top of a magazine or newspaper, and use their finger to dab drops of water on top of the saran wrap.  These act as little magnifying glasses, magnifying the words.  I asked them to discuss what they saw, and relate it to their reading.  I was so, so proud of the thoughtfulness that students put into the assignment.  They noticed that the smaller drops magnified more (which makes sense because the curvature of the lens is greater).  They realized that the fact that the words were magnified meant that this was a convex lens, with the object closer to the lens than the focal point.  One did the experiment of lifting up the saran wrap to see what happened as the object got further from the lens.

And doing this in a discussion board format worked really well because everyone could see everyone else’s answers.  I see students mentioning that they looked closer at what they were seeing after seeing other students’ observations.  On another assignment, one realized by looking at student comments that it would be better to do the reading before watching the short video.

I think these class preparation exercises don’t take much time, but creates some accountability for the reading, and helps create some sense of community in the class.  I’ve been really pleased with it so far.  While I’m not requiring students to comment on each others’ posts, and am not facilitating deep discussions online, it has been a helpful tool.


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