Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Getting Beyond the Surface with Online Discussions

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A science teacher colleague of mine recently asked about how to get his students started using Twitter discussions.  He was curious about the ins and outs of using hashtags.  I'm thrilled he's considering ways to use this platform to extend the discussions in his science classroom; engaging students in online discussions is a powerful platform for fueling thinking, dialogue, questioning, debate, research, and synthesis.  My caution to this teacher was that deciding the hashtag is only the tip of the iceberg!

While students might know more than we do about the ins and outs of Twitter, it doesn't necessarily mean they are armed with the skills to engage in a riveting academic discussion.  We must teach students how to engage in these platforms, and doing so will teach them a host of great skills in addition to the content.

  • Begin with the question.  Before you ever encourage students to share their ideas online, it might be worthwhile to spend time generating questions.  Whether your topic is a novel, a mathematical concept, or a historical event, a question grid such as this one can help students consider questions that are powerful for online discussions.  Questions in the top left of this grid are questions that can easily be googled.  They are important questions because understanding the basic foundation often helps us dive into deeper questions, but they may not fuel an online dialogue.  As you move to the lower right corner of this grid, questions become more and more complex.  Students might work collaboratively to develop as many questions on a topic using the grid.  Then discuss which questions might best move the online discussion forward.  
  • Consider roles.  Be specific about the various ways to engage in online discussion by using roles to make the skills explicit.  Assign each student a role for the first few online discussions and rotate roles so that students experience practicing the various skills. 
    • Questioner: Proposes open-ended questions to fuel the discussion
    • Provocateur: Acts as the devil's advocate trying to get students to see opposing viewpoints
    • Explorer: Explores and shares relevant links to expand the information under consideration
    • Connector: Seeks outside experts to engage in the conversation by posing questions or comments directly to the expert
    • First Responder: Responds to the questions and comments of others with new questions, ideas, or information
    • Summarizer: Recaps the major points and questions of the entire online discussion back to the class 
  • Model and deconstruct.  It's critical to participate in the conversation with students and model the kinds of posts you'd like to see.  It can also be helpful to isolate specific posts and discuss them as a class.  How did the post contribute to the online discussion?  What worked?  What could be improved for next time? 
  • Synthesize and summarize.  One of the biggest challenges of online conversations is getting participants to read past their own comments.  Often, students will make their required post and never go back to read anything else.  They are missing so much rich dialogue!  Make it a part of the process to synthesize the information with other content you've been exploring in class, and summarize the highlights of the online discussion.  Students might even respond to a thinking stem such as: 
    • I used to think ____ but now I think _____
    • Because of _____'s comment/question, I'm now wondering ________
    • Prior to this discussion, I hadn't thought about ______
  • Join forces.  Once you have a few online discussions under your belt, join forces with another class to make the conversation more dynamic. These could be your own classes that are in a different hour, or join with a class across the hall or the world.  Understanding multiple perspectives and considering new questions/ideas will add another dimension to the discussion and guide students to think beyond the surface.  

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