Written by: Darcy White, Instructional Designer, Learning and Creative Services
Learner-to-learner and learner-to-instructor interaction are key for a learner’s experience in Brightspace. Designing for these types of interactions in your online courses will boost learner motivation and learning outcomes; and discussions are a great place to start! Discussions allow learners to connect with their peers and instructor throughout a course, offer social learning opportunities, and provide additional avenues for learners to demonstrate their knowledge of course content.
Best Practices for Discussion Setup
Let’s go over some of the settings available to you in the Discussions tool that you can use to promote active learner engagement.
Consider using the Groups tool to create smaller discussion groups. Splitting learners into groups of four or five people provides more room for participation, as learners aren’t all placed in one large discussion that makes it more likely that their posts get lost or that it’s too intimidating to participate. Placing learners in smaller groups that span the life of a course can also generate more active discussion as learners get more comfortable with their group as the course runs. Another option for the Groups tool is to get learners to sign up for topics of interest or course goals and build some discussions around those selections to personalize the experience and give learners more agency over their learning.
Post-first discussions require learners to write their post before they see what their peers have written. This feature ensures that your learners aren’t anchored or biased by the posts their peers have already made. This can lead to a more active discussion as learners engage in conversation around differing points of view or novel examples from learners’ varied backgrounds.
You can also consider using discussion ratings to increase peer-to-peer interaction and as another means of providing learners with feedback on their posts. This feature mimics what learners are used to on social media, in which they can upvote (Upvote Only Rating Scheme) and/or react to and rate posts (Five-Star Rating Scheme). You also have the option of using an Upvote/Downvote Rating Scheme, which can be useful in situations where you want to get a quick read on whether your learners agree or disagree with a point. Use caution with this last option though, as it could be demotivating for learners if a post they’ve made is getting downvoted!
Rules of Engagement
Create ground rules to ensure respectful discussions and willing participation from learners. Providing learners with discussion tips and outlining discussion etiquette at the beginning of a course sets expectations and creates a comfortable environment for sharing.
Here are some sample discussion tips and rules of engagement directed at learners that you can use as a starting point for your course.
- Use a descriptive title for your discussion post. This makes it easier for your peers to determine what your post is about at a glance before they read through it.
- Make your posts concise and clear. Staying on topic and to the point will help you get your ideas across to your peers and make it easier for them to unpack what you mean and write a response.
- Provide evidence to support your points. Always make sure to explain why you have a certain perspective to help your peers understand where you’re coming from so that they can potentially offer an alternative explanation or expand on your post.
- Keep the focus on why you disagree with something. It’s fine if you have a different opinion from your peers! The key in these cases is to keep the focus on what your perspective is and why, rather than on your peers themselves.
- Take a breather if you have an emotional response to a post. Taking a step back from a post and thinking about a reply can reduce the likelihood that you’ll say something you later want to take back. If you’re still unsure of how your planned response reads, you could get a friend to read your draft post and give you feedback.
- Use appropriate language. Avoid terms that could be perceived as rude or inappropriate and remember to include pleasantries like “please” and “thank you.” This is especially important online where your peers don’t have access to information like your tone of voice or facial expressions.
Best Practices for Instructor Participation and Debriefing
As the instructor, facilitator, or moderator in a course, your participation has a large impact on a learner’s experience. To show your learners that you’re actively participating in the discussion yourself, consider creating a plan for interaction that will make sure you’re reaching as many learners as possible. For instance, you could set minimum participation goals for yourself (e.g., respond to at least one learner per group’s post every week) to keep up with the discussions and show that you’re active and engaged. Try to find the balance between your presence and overcontributing to avoid negatively impacting learner participation. Choosing to reply to topics that have become quiet or gone in the wrong direction, and/or asking probing questions that don’t give learners answers, are great ways to keep the conversation going.
Another approach you can use to acknowledge learners’ contributions is by summarizing main points of discussion in an announcement using the Announcements tool. This shows that you’re present online and validates their participation and perspectives. An added bonus of summarizing the discussion is that learners will have an opportunity to see points that were brought up by groups other than their own.
By making the most of discussion settings, teaching your learners about discussion tips, tricks, and etiquette, and by being present in the discussions yourself, you can motivate your learners to participate actively in online discussions.