Effective Discussion Leading

It is often assumed that the purpose of the online discussion forum is to replace the interaction available in face to face learning environments, but Levine (2007) suggests that it provides constructivist learning and community development that is not necessarily present in onsite learning. The connection between constructivism and community development is the construction of knowledge through collaboration. While this is a higher level of learning than the lower taxonomies of acquiring and understanding, it also provides a higher responsibility on the online facilitator to provide the support structure for that construction of knowledge through collaboration. Levine (2007) provides conditions that online faculty (academic) or discussion leaders (business collaboration) need to know so as to provide the necessary environment conducive to the higher learning constructivism. These conditions include setting the climate, establishing rules and expectations, truly guiding the discussion through various techniques such as Socratic or debate, focus on the higher learning levels such as analysis and synthesis, encourage refection, stimulate participation and summarize discussions. All of these and more are supplied by Levine (2007) as methods for allowing students to construct their knowledge, raise their cognitive domains, and become even more self-aware. Without self-awareness, people cannot find relevance in learning to their own experiences, thus are handicapped to contribute in collaboration.

Discussions can be highly structured, inspirational, and practice-oriented, which are all facilitation styles studied and presented by Baran and Correia (2009) based on their grounded theory research. The structured style in the research was based on a Know-Want-Learn approach that had students collaborating what they already know, followed by discussing what they wanted to better understand, with a conclusion of what they learned. This was spread over the week, keeping students in the specific mode until discussion was exhausted and they were ready to move to the next mode. This organization and guidance allows full engagement from learners and helps them be aware of process, which is critical.

The inspirational style of discussion guidance focuses on connecting the reading material to the student’s own dreams, desires and motivations. Having students directly apply their own world to what is being learned helps make the content relevant, thus inspiring students to go beyond the comprehension cognitive domain and enter into knowledge construction. Finally, we have the practice-oriented style of discussion guidance that has much more impact from the curriculum designer than the facilitator, although the latter has to understand the approach. Baran and Correia (2009) report four design paradigms that were discovered in the grounded theory research for the practice-oriented facilitation strategy. These include planning by objectives, communication to reach consensus, interactive revision, and creativity. A new thread concerning the topic would be posted for each design paradigm so students would clearly experience each stage of the discussion that was directly correlated to real-life practices. If students cannot relate to the questions, then this model cannot be used successfully. These approaches to discussion structure allow students to self-lead and focus on peer facilitation, and we are not limited to merely these three strategies. These approaches can be the starting point of a facilitator or curriculum designer’s creativity in more effective structure and guiding strategies in discussions. This also suggests that the online discussion forum intent is indeed more than a replacement for onsite collaboration and seeks to amplify the construction of knowledge through collaboration and experience.

Baran, E., & Correia, A. (2009). Student-led facilitation strategies in online discussions. Distance Education, 30(3), 339-361. doi:10.1080/01587910903236510

Levine, J. (2007). The online discussion board. In S. Conceicao (Ed.), Teaching strategies in the online environment (pp. 67-74). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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About Marian

My passion is centered around ensuring effective learning experiences that improve people's lives. Developing a learning mindset is my ultimate goal whether working with academic programs or corporate training; formal or informal learning practices. It is my belief that our potential for agility is limited only by our capacity for learning.