One thing that works – really works – in elearning is peer learning. Think of winter weather social media posts asking “Are the roads still icy between here and there?” We depend every day on peers to bring us good information we can act on.
What happens when an elearning course is designed to maximize peer learning, and no one participates in the discussion boards?
What if no one contributes in a meaningful way? What if good learners are turned off by inflammatory comments that get a lot of unwarranted attention?
Researchers are looking into how really good discussion interactions work (click to follow link to their paper – it’s quite interesting). They suggest three design patterns that work in open courses:
- Special Interest Discussions: You already know the kinds of conversations your material is likely to generate. In an online delivery system, create special topic discussion forums for people to connect about those specific areas of curiosity. Participants can peruse previous responses and engage each other.
- Use this if your goal is to better manage a high volume of discussions – making it easier for you to facilitate.
- Celebrity Touch: A post, comment or “like” from the course instructor (or the course instructor’s proxy) can bring a lot of attention to an insightful post that isn’t getting the attention you think should. Respond to and encourage the types of posts you want to see, not the kind you don’t want to see.
- Use this if your goal is to give special status to certain posts or to enhance peer learning.
- Look and Engage: This involves inviting students to co-create a piece of content. These researchers said students should co-create the piece in an online collaboration space. Personally, I’ve found this strategy frustrating. Another option is to use that Celebrity Touch again to draw interested students into a deeper level of engagement – to invite selected learners to a detailed online discussion so they can begin contributing their own perspective. This might be inside or outside the learning environment.
- Use this if your goal is to create meaningful discussions among specific groups within the course.
From a course designer’s perspective, we’ve seen discussion-based courses struggle even though the discussions were critical to the outcomes of the course. Make discussion boards work better:
- Design intentionally. To effectively use Celebrity Touch, it must be used judiciously. Pre-plan thresholds for identifying the kinds of posts and the timing of when you want to play the Celebrity Touch card.
- Create shared experiences. Online participants lack the cohort sense of “I know your face”, even though their profile might have a picture. Purposely design live (or semi-live – think recorded webinar or podcast) experiences that support the sense of “we’re all in this together”. It’s incredibly motivating to have that sense of “us” as an online participant.
- Have clear goals. Each of the three strategies had a clear goal associated with it. Never throw a discussion question out there without having a goal for how the learner should respond or for how you as the facilitator will keep a pulse on the responses.
Interaction Develops – It doesn’t just happen. Discussion does not equal Interaction. Interaction is the golden ticket in this type of course.
- Interaction means students share ideas with each other because they are interested in each other’s ideas. But they need to be prompted to create great idea or pointed to hidden gems first.
- They interact because they trust each other. But learners need a reason to trust – so the teacher must create trust generating experiences.
- They interact to connect with each other personally. But the teacher needs to create safe opportunities for that.
- They interact to create an experience together. Again – the facilitator must make the initial advances to prime the interaction pump.
THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING:
Do not orphan your learners!
Regardless of whether you have only a single discussion question in your course, or whether your course is 100% discussion questions, be present in the course or pay someone to be present in the course for you.
My worst online course experience was with an instructor who took an extended vacation in the middle of the course, never emailed me back and never (it seemed) logged in to check our progress. If you are not willing to check discussion responses daily, then hire a tutor, student worker or virtual assistant to do it for you. Be clear up front about how you want them to represent you as your proxy in the course. Create clear expectations about frequency, language in responses, thresholds for implementing Celebrity Touch and create accountability systems.
Don’t give up because week 1 discussions were cold.
It will work.
…but use a specific strategy.
The best part about the examples used in this helpful piece of research is that they all represent successful courses – courses that have had thousands of completions and have either had a follow up course created or have been re-versioned for launch on more popular deployment sites that will increase audience size.
Which strategy can you implement with your discussion-based online courses to see more success?
Liyanagunawardena, T. R., Kennedy, E. & Cuffe, P. (2015). Design patterns for promoting peer interaction in discussion forums in MOOCs. eLearning Papers (42).