December 2, 2021

Reinvigorate your online discussions. Re-engage your students.

Over the past few years, our world has become increasingly more digital. From video chatting with family and friends near and far to celebrating birthdays, holidays, and other milestone moments in front of a screen, it’s safe to say we’ve all had to adapt.

The same is true for online learning. What was once an option selected by a few students is now commonplace. Instructors with little to no technical expertise are now teaching lectures online. And students, accustomed to the flexibility online learning provides, are demanding the option remain. 

But one area of online learning that has struggled to adjust is discussions. What were once vibrant, in-person debates where students and instructors exchanged opinions, posed questions, and challenged assumptions are now relegated to online discussion boards that feel flat and, well, boring

It’s not that instructors aren’t trying to breathe life into online discussions. Many have tried assigning multiple due dates to encourage students to engage – and re-engage – with their peers over the course of an assignment. Some encourage the use of images and videos to add interest and entice engagement. While others post prompts that they hope will provoke emotion and foster debate. 

The reality, however, is that participation often feels like a “check the box” activity.  Students invest minimal effort, either agreeing with other student’s posts or adding one-word replies that fail to recreate the vibrant exchanges once experienced in a standard classroom. 

Online learning is certainly here to stay. So how do you reinvigorate your discussions, not just to make them more interesting, but also to foster the collaborative, collegial community that defines higher education? To go “beyond the discussion board” – moving from simple participation to true engagement?

The answer isn’t easy, but it’s actually quite simple. It’s ensuring that your engagement model includes synchronous discussion to complement the asynchronous work you assign your students outside the classroom. There are many ways you can do this, but we are going to focus on three capabilities that will help create better engagement.

1. Collaborative technology

Let’s be honest. Traditional video conferencing platforms are not doing higher education any favors. While they do provide many features, they fail to recreate the environment of a standard classroom. One where the instructor can see all of the students at once, break students into groups, and float seamlessly from conversation to conversation. Ensuring you have video conferencing technology that’s designed to work just like a classroom does will help you foster greater collaboration with students during your synchronous lectures. It will allow you to have more productive office hours, too.

2. Visibility

How many times have you scrolled through the seemingly endless list of participants just to find the one or two students you want to address? Our guess: more times than you can count. Using collaborative video technology that allows you to see all your students at once makes your virtual classroom feel more connected – and collaborative. Students can see each other – and you can see them, too. All of them. 

3. Breakout rooms

Traditional video conferencing platforms have breakout room capabilities. But they are rigid, forcing instructors to “enter” and “leave” with deliberate actions. Imagine being able to break your students into groups, see the group activity and how they are collaborating without having to enter their breakout room, and then float between the groups, just like you would on campus. You can seamlessly pop in and out of discussions, without disrupting the flow of the debate. And students benefit, too. From interactive whiteboards to collaborating around a shared screen or via a Google doc, the experience feels more connected, helping to foster the camaraderie students experience in a regular classroom.

While there is no “one size fits all” answer, we believe that a blend of synchronous and asynchronous discussions is the best way to boost engagement, foster community, and build camaraderie with your students. Do this, and you’ll help students shift from participation to true engagement. 


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