How to get the most out of online class discussions

Online discussions are a great resource for the classroom as they allow students the ability to collaborate together, share work with their peers and express themselves in a safe and comfortable environment. 

However as a teacher, moderating such discussions can be quite daunting. In this post, we'd like to share a few tips and techniques on how to effectively engage students in an online discussion and enhance their learning experience. 

Gilly Salmon's E-Moderation model

A few years ago, I took a course in e-moderation by Gilly Salmon, which follows the principle that the key role and responsibility of a moderator is to promote human interaction and communication. 

Here are three tips on how you can encourage effective and positive student contributions to classroom discussions: 

1. Provide a 'Spark'

This can be anything — generally a short video, an image, a quote or anything that hints at the topic to come. The purpose of the 'spark' is to get learners out of their shells and get them to share an opinion or thought on a generally lighthearted or inspiring topic.

2. Summarise contributions

Students are much more likely to keep sharing their thoughts in a positive manner if their opinions are acknowledged in some way. While it would be very time-consuming to respond to each student's post individually, you'll find that a few choruses develop as the discussion goes on.

A summary post could then bring those contributions together, e.g.

"Jenny, Sam, Ahmed and Shanti thought a tree that falls over in a forest still makes a sound even if no-one is there to hear it, whereas Jocelyn, Freddie, Toby and Sarah were less certain".

This makes everyone feel like their contribution was not only read but also understood by the teacher.

3. Weave them to move learning further

In Salmon's vocabulary, a weave is a technique that is the next step after the summary. Essentially, it's gathering learner's thoughts, picking one angle of the discussion and guiding them further by posing a more challenging question. 

To continue with the example above, I could ask the second group the following question to prompt further discussion: 

"Jocelyn, Freddie, Toby and Sarah - if a microphone was planted in the forest, do you think that would cause the tree to make a sound?"

It's anything from hypothetical scenarios to contrasting opposing views and other analytical tasks. Students respond to each other and these responses are again summarised by the teacher.

A weave is also an effective way to steer conversations that have veered off track back on topic.

Co-constructing knowledge

This form of gentle scaffolding naturally leads to the development of a variety of viewpoints and with careful (and often restrained) moderation from the teacher, it can be very satisfying to see students find the path themselves. 

Sure, it's sometimes necessary to delete the odd offensive or silly post, but I urge you to continue using this tool to bring out the best in students. They help each other out, share resources and introverted students are more likely to voice opinions in such a format as well.

Do you have any other tips for moderating chats online? I'd love to hear them — please share them below in the discussion!

Guido Gautsch | VP of Happiness @ Stile