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If you are among the thousands of instructors now being challenged to transition courses urgently to an online format, you are, no doubt, discovering that designing intentional and effective online pedagogies is no small feat.

As Kevin Carey eloquently put it in The New York Times a few weeks ago, effective online coursework requires much more than “giving every professor a Zoom account and letting instruction take its course.” Teaching online requires an intentional, thoughtful approach to instructional design, especially at a time when students are being asked to transition at an unprecedented pace in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. Amid the turmoil, it’s troubling -- if not surprising -- that challenges with the move to online learning will have the greatest impact on the students who are most at risk: research suggests that struggling students often have the most trouble succeeding in online programs.

It’s easy to be discouraged by these abrupt changes and by the reality that online success rates often still lag behind those of face-to-face classes. A growing body of evidence indicates that the biggest barrier to achieving equivalent success rates in online learning has been tackling the challenge of cultivating the sort of collaboration, engagement and discussion that are often the hallmark of great teaching and learning environments.

And instructors who have implemented online discussion before know that the term “online discussion” is far from one-size-fits-all, and they can refer to a wide range of approaches -- with varying success rates. But the picture isn’t all bleak: thoughtful instructional design and intentional use of technology can help make the most of online discussion to help improve student outcomes. Here are a few tips for institutions as they navigate the rapid transition to online programs.

Set simple and consistent expectations about students’ responsibilities. Make your life -- and your students’ lives -- easier with simple, clear, consistent requirements for engaging in your online discussion board of choice. Every additional criterion, deadline difference and exception adds complexity and cognitive load for students to remember, so consider the cost versus the benefit of adding more complex requirements. A recurring deadline (e.g., Sundays at 10 p.m.) with clear requirements (“Post one question per deadline period and two responses”) allows students to focus on making their posts and building a habit of inquiry -- rather than on making sure they are “getting their points.”

Foster autonomy by following the Community of Inquiry best practices. The Community of Inquiry (CoI) model, developed by researcher Randy Garrison, makes the case that online discussion is most effective when students have a cognitive presence, a social presence and a teaching presence in the discussion. In this model, students attain a cognitive presence in the community through forming their own inquiries. They achieve social presence by engaging with and being exposed to other engaged peers. Surprisingly, though, it’s equally critical (if not more so) that students themselves have a teaching presence in the community, which is obtained through self-regulation, peer moderation and discussion facilitation through their own inquiries. It may sound counterintuitive, but instructors who encourage their students to act as stewards and moderators of the community end up seeing more substantive engagement.

Stay focused on what really matters -- which usually isn’t the little things. Managing online discussion can feel like one more item on an ever-growing to-do list, and in a time of crisis like this one, the burden is even higher. Many instructors feel they need to read every discussion post for accuracy, grammar and compliance -- but with online discussion, the most important thing is to see students engaging meaningfully and actively. Interestingly, instructors who are highly involved in moderating posts often see reduced student autonomy and engagement within the discussion. By fighting the urge to intervene in every incorrect answer or rogue punctuation mark in the discussion board, you can stay focused on engaging with students meaningfully, while supporting student autonomy, leading to better student motivation and course performance.

Pick the right tool for the job. When implementing online discussion, make sure to accompany the work of encouraging motivation, autonomy and inquiry with a medium that helps facilitate those goals. For example, Kathy Cecil-Sanchez, vice president of instruction at Lone Star College-University Park, is one of a number of institutional leaders working with the online discussion start-up Packback to foster more effective online discussion. Early results from a forthcoming research study indicate that the tool has helped colleges achieve a statistically significant increase in student grades, as well as increases in overall discussion performance (weekly participation, source citation and student-to-student interaction). According to Cecil-Sanchez, “If we let go of some control, and allow students to make connections for themselves and write their own questions on the topic … it will make the instruction more interesting and keep students engaged as we all respond to what's happening in the world.”

Achieving meaningful results in online discussion will not be easy for many instructors, particularly during a time of so much uncertainty. In the words of SUNY Plattsburgh technology coordinator John Locke, who represents his institution in the statewide initiative SUNY Online and is also a participant in the system's research into effective online discussion, “We must remember that these students didn't ‘sign on’ to online learning. In fact, they made a choice to learn in a face-to-face environment. Many students make this choice because they know they do not have the discipline necessary to work in an asynchronous environment. Knowing that, we must try to simulate the classroom as much as practically possible.”

By focusing on the importance of using discussion to foster both autonomy and curiosity, it’s possible for online conversations to inspire students’ intrinsic motivation and increase not only engagement but also academic performance.

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