Approaches to Managing Online Discussions

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For classes that involve any degree of participation, it is important to consider how to manage online discussions. This article explores the options and considerations involved in student participation within online classes. 

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Extent of discussion moderation

For subjective material common within the social sciences, discussion is one of the most effective learning environments. This is maybe especially so in more advanced classes, where engaging directly with the material enables deeper consideration of the material. 

Free-flowing discussion

Just as in-person, free-flowing discussion between students maybe one of the most engaging forms of discussion. In this environment, the instructor is able to step back from the active discussion, allowing students to discuss among themselves the material, with limited oversight to ensure that the discussion remains focused.

Although free-flowing discussion can work well with small groups, at around 15 or 20 students, the ability to achieve a naturally flowing conversation starts to break down, with the key challenge for students in knowing when to speak, and the challenge of multiple students starting to talk at the same time. Another challenge with free-flowing discussion, and maybe especially so as the class size increases, is where a limited number of eager students begin to dominate discussion, leaving other students feeling that they are not able to feel as though they are able to participate (or the that the only way to do so is to interrupt others).

Mediated discussion

A slight adaptation to free-flowing discussion, more suited to larger groups, is to mediate the discussion through the instructor calling on individuals. This can both avoid the possibility that individuals ‘clash’ when speaking, interruptions of others are avoided, and that attention can be made to ensure that students who would not otherwise talk are brought into the conversation. 

Directed discussion

While both free-flowing and mediated discussions put the instructor in a relatively passive role, it is also possible to take a more active role in the discussion, giving a greater influence in shaping the discussion. This may be particularly important in ensuring that conversation is directed in different or specific directions, and avoid repetition of perspectives or the conversation to stay at a relatively surface level without assumptions being challenged. 

Norms regarding maintaining microphones on / off

A consideration related to the form of conversation is whether to encourage students to leave their microphones on throughout the class, or to only turn them on when they directly want to speak. While encouraging students to leave their microphone may help with free-flowing discussion, one of the dangers of this approach is that the slight background noise from a non-speaking participant (who has their microphone on), can disrupt the class, both causing noise and the focus of the video feed to switch to them. As such, in general, an ‘all-on’ microphone policy is best suited to situations when the number of students in the class is particularly low. 

While in general, it is not advisable for all students to have their microphones on throughout the class, the clear exception to this is for the instructor, where in general the ability to speak without having to first turn on the microphone overrides the disadvantages (with it important that instructors are located in a quiet environment for the successful delivery of the material).

Physically or digitally raising hands

Another consideration, particularly important with either mediated/directed needed is how students should identify if they have a question or response: either by raising their hands or using the blue ‘hands raise’ icon within Zoom.

Advantages of physical hand raising over digital hands

  • Avoiding having digital hands left up: One issue with using digital hands is a tendency for students to leave the icon on after the conversation has moved on or their point has already been raised. This can thus result in a slightly more disjointed discussion, with students being called on that no longer have points to raise.
  • More natural discussion: Raising hands physically in many ways feels more natural and consistent with the in-person experience vs. using a digital button.  

Advantages of raising over digital hands​ over physical hands

  • Students are elevated to the top of the gallery view: One of the key advantages of using digital hand-raising is that it elevates that student’s position within the gallery view. This can be particularly useful when there are more students than fit on the gallery view (25 by default, or up to 49 with a change to default settings), avoiding the need to regularly click to see additional students, or potentially missing students that are not on the first page of students.
  • Reduces the potential of missing students: One challenge with looking for physical hands being raised is the possibility of missing a student that has their hands raised – in part because the blue hand is quite contrasting, it is harder to miss. 

Summary

Discussions can be an important part of online classes, providing opportunities for students to engage more directly with class content than a lecture format. Successful management of online discussions is however not easy, and maybe particularly so in larger classes. While consideration of the best way to approach the discussions can help achieve a natural flowing environment, as with all approaches, it is important to be willing to mix it up, and if one approach is not working to try a different way of integrating discussion into your class. 

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