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Donna Reiss
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Ten Tips for Generating Engaged Online Discussions
by Katherine Fischer, Clarke College; Donna Reiss, Clemson University; and Art Young ,Clemson University

In electronic environments, responses to ideas and texts are dialogic rather than solitary and foster ongoing written conversations among readings and readers. These guidelines should be adapted to course content, design, and emphasis, as well as to the type of electronic communication (email list, discussion board, or Weblog, for instance).

  1. Carefully integrate electronic discussions into course goals, not as add-on assignments.
    • Participation should be mandatory, and on-time participation is crucial to establishing a conversational, academic exchange.
    • To highlight the importance of online community as a complement to your face-to-face community or as an alternative communication area in your online community, designate a student-moderated conversational forum such as a Cybercafe Forum or Cyberlounge.
  2. Give students credit but not necessarily grades for their prompt, engaged participation. Without intervening in the students’ discussion, you may provide feedback in an email or discussion board message or in person to the entire class mentioning insightful ideas generated by the discussion and encouraging further reading, thinking, and conversation.
  3. Offer precise directions with clear expectations: scope, approach, tone (courteous and respectful of various viewpoints), length (minimum and maximum—we recommend 250-350 words), diction (such as “edited conversational”), form or genre (letter or memo or report), and deadlines for each post. You may want to provide a model of a good post.
  4. Consider integrating Internet research, in which students include and discuss relevant Web sites as active links in their messages to each other. When appropriate, encourage students to incorporate visual images and multimedia.
  5. In your guidelines for the discussion, encourage explanations, examples, questions, speculations, alternative viewpoints, and connections to personal experience.
  6. Develop topics and assignments that will elicit engagement with ideas as well as the answers and responses you seek. Sometimes you’ll want to be quite specific about topics and approaches; sometimes you’ll want to be more open-ended, allowing the first person who posts to determine the topic and approach.
  7. Encourage or require students to quote from the textbook, from your lectures and materials, and from their classmates’ posts when they respond to each other and when they write their tests or papers on topics they discussed online. Provide a model for informal documentation for these source references
  8. Have students include their own and one or more classmates’ posts in their final course portfolios along with reflection on what was learned from specific classmates and from the e-discussion process.
  9. Assign small groups, for example, five-to-seven students who read and respond to each other. Every group’s posts should be available to the whole class, but students need only read their own group’s writing.
    • To expand the learning communities, have each group respond to a different group for one or more posts.
    • Encourage students to read all the posts of all the groups; select some exam questions from their discussions (and let them know you plan to do so).
  10. Develop a heuristic, for example, here’s an adaptable approach that can be made more fluid or more directive.
    • First post: Respond to the reading or assigned topic with specific reference to the reading. Include a brief summary, select a specific focus or point, develop that point with explanations and examples, and invite commentary from classmates about a particular concern, not the whole post, ending with an invitation or question.
    • Second post: Read all the posts in your group and then respond to the first post of a classmate who has not yet received a reply. Include specific reference to the main idea of the classmate’s post and to the assigned reading or topic, expand on the classmate’s ideas with additional information or ideas or offer an alternative viewpoint on the topic and support your position with references to the reading or posts by other group members. Perhaps raise questions and speculate further on the topic.
    • Third post: Respond to the person who answered your first post with appreciation for their response and an explanation of ways their message increased your own understanding or stimulated your thinking. Remember your audience is a specific individual plus your whole class.
    • Additional post: Summarize all the messages from your group and analyze for primary points, similarities and differences, and other observations about the group’s thinking.
    • Additional post: For a subsequent post, respond to one or more classmates from a different group than the one you have been participating in.
    • If the class meets face to face, gather the writing group to discuss the issues in person and report orally to the class as a whole.
    • More patterns and variations.
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modified slightly and copyright ©3 October 2014 by
D. Reiss