Multi-Stage Online Discussion

Fostering Ongoing Conversation Among Your Students

Successful Classroom Discussions Require Guidance

In a face-to-face classroom, the instructor's role is to serve as presenter, moderator, and gentle motivator. This role remains the same in online spaces, but takes place in a different way — in particular, you need to provide more cohesive "up front" directions for your students to ensure they post material that is sufficiently detailed and focused to keep the conversation going.

On this page, I've provided some information about why online discussions should take place in stages, and then an example of a discussion-in-stages for students to plan a writing assignment with input from their peers.

Why Have Multiple Stages of Online Discussion

Challenges of Online Discussions

For me, one shortcoming of online discussions is their tendency to be one-directional — students post ideas, you might require them to post responses to each other, but then the conversation itself fizzles. Although students may post very long and thoughtful posts — in many ways, they'll share better information than you're likely to hear during a full-class face-to-face discussion — there isn't much room for back-and-forth communication.

Multiple Stages Encourage Evolution of Student Thinking

This multi-stage discussion is one attempt at addressing this. Rather than assigning a conversation at a set point in a module, the multi-stage discussion would require multiple posts spread across different stages of the module. This provides two key advantages:

  • It requires students to update their thoughts over the course of the module. So rather than have students post an idea and a couple responses, it has students post an idea, learn course material, and then consider how their thinking has changed.
  • Students can "swap notes" with their peers

Project Guidance Discussion

Naturally, getting students fully engaged in a writing project is difficult. This discussion is designed to meet the following UDL guidelines:

  1. Encouraging Engagement by asking students to describe the topics of their choice.
  2. Encouraging Expression by inviting students to present their ideas through either written, spoken, or video responses.
  3. Providing Multiple Means of Representation by having students read not only the required course material, but also the responses from their classmates to that material. For students who feel uncertain about the concepts, a classmate's interpretation may prove helpful.

This will be a discussion board that takes place in three stages across the module. At each stage, students will be interacting with their group members by posting ideas for what they'd like to write about and providing feedback for their classmates.

Stage 1: Initial Writing Plan (following lecture)

In Stage 1 of the discussion, students will introduce the the topics that they plan on writing about for this module. This will be a rather broad introduction — I'm looking for students to focus on the ideas they care about, and to explain which aspects of those ideas they'd like to focus on. For this assignment, either a written submission, an audio recording, or a video clip can be used to fulfill the requirements.

The following questions will be used as prompts for each student:

  1. What is the main topic you'd like to write about? Please choose something that you find personally interesting or relevant, particularly something you can relate back to this module. For example, if you love reading fantasy, you could talk about how fantasy books relate to this week's discussion.
  2. What is a particularly fascinating example from this topic? Here, be as detailed as possible. For example, you might say "I love reading Harry Potter," and then go deeper. You might say "the Harry Potter books use pathos by placing the characters in emotionally complex and difficult situations. I want to focus on the complicated interactions between Ron and Hermione in Book 7."
  3. What sources will you need to find out more? Here, you don't necessarily need to know the all your sources. For example, you might say "I've read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and I'll use that as my primary source. I would also look for interviews with J.K. Rowling as another primary source, and then look for a New York Times book review of Book 7 as a secondary source. I don't know what kind of scholarly sources are out there — I'll check first for academic articles on Book 7, then broaden my search to Harry Potter, fantasy novels, and maybe creative writing."

Stage 2: Suggestions from the Readings

In Stage 2, students will post replies to their group members. Here, I want students to use the readings as a way to offer advice and suggestions for each other's work. For example, if one student says "I'm planning on looking at how video games get people to want to play them," another student might reply "Have you considered the advertising angle? The second reading with the McDonald's billboard showed how images can draw customers — do video game ads have the same effect?"

Stage 3: Updated Writing Plan (following Guide to Assignment)

In Stage 3, each student will post a reply to their own initial thread. Here, I want each student explaining their thoughts on the concepts so far and how that will affect their approaches to writing. Incorporating the assignment directions and group feedback, each student should have a coherent and comprehensive plan for researching, organizing, and writing their assignment. Here are the post prompts:

  1. What is your refined focus? Please be specific. For example, you might write "I'm changing to write about Harry and Ginny in Book 6 — their interactions offer are easier to relate back to pathos, particularly the scenes of sadness and regret near the end of the novel."
  2. What quotes and sources are you using? Again, please be specific. "I'll be using the conversation between Harry and Ginny after the funeral, as well as an interview with J.K. Rowling where she explains her thoughts on Harry and Ginny. I also found a scholarly source that talks about the use of tension in Twilight — I think the analysis of love and vampires offers an interesting contrast to Harry Potter."
  3. What is your writing schedule? Please sketch out your plan for when and where you plan to write your assignment. Something quick such as "I'm going to the library on Saturday" works fine. Also, identify any challenges you might face, such as "My manager assigned me to work doubles this weekend, so I might not get everything done by the deadline. I'll request an extension through the assignment comments."