Encouraging students to participate in online discussion

Student Engagement

What many educators find is that, despite our best efforts, there is at least one student who will just not engage or participate in the online discussion. When the programme or course is delivered purely online, and all activities are delivered online, this is a worry. When the cohort size is small (less than 20 students) just a few who don’t engage make a huge hole in the quality of discussion taking place.

So, how do ‘we’ encourage the ‘few’ who don’t like, or want, to engage?

Robin Bartoletti writes on her blog  about “Tips for Encouraging Student-Faculty Contact“, that explaining and outlining the goals, the Intended Learning Outcome (ILOs) as I know them, will direct the students to the expected level (and quantity) of participation. These ILOs are the “framework to tie content to, throughout the course, so the students better understands why they are completing (the) assignment.”

What else can we, the leader / instructor / educator do to encourage all students to participate to a required level? How about:

  • Technology needs to be carefully and clearly explained to students (telling students to submit using the digital drop-box and explaining to students the steps necessary to submit yield very different outcomes),
  • Define required levels of student participation in the course (number of entries per week, length of entries, number of replies to someone else’s work, etc),
  • Take an active role in moderating discussions and providing feedback to students in a way that serves to model the behaviour you ‘re expecting from them (make them feel valued; if they spend the time writing it, you spend the time reading it),
  • Use announcements that allow you to outline and point them to key activities that must be completed (announcements will bring in those who may not have found it the first time), and
  • Students wont know you’re involved in the course unless they can see evidence that you’re present (use postings, add new announcements, and provide feedback on assignments).

From  my own experience, these don’t always work:

  • Announcements can be placed so they students see them as soon as they logon (and can be emailed as well). Some students just don’t logon often enough for these to make any difference.
  • With asynchronous learning we are just not online at the same time as the students, hence they may feel lonely and un-answered when they are keen to post, but no one is there to listen.
  • Online learners have many more distractions in their study area than on-campus students. This will greatly influence not only the quality of their participation, but the frequency too.
  • Some people are just lazy and therefore will not contribute no matter how important the discussion or activity is. This, however, must not be confused with being too busy or indeed having other factors to take into consideration; bereavement, business trips, family, etc. But in these circumstances the student must take responsibility and let us know,using the Mitigating Circumstances form, so we can take these factors into account, and not pester them to participate.
  • A successful discussion board will obviously have more posts to read, and joining late is a very daunting prospect, and is one that some will find too hard to get around. The natural response here is to wait it out.

Factors we must all recognise in trying to ‘force’ the participation is that the activity must be engaging, it must use the right technology (is a discussion really the best method for this?) and it must use a sensible time-frame so everyone has the ability to participate without losing out. Afterall, we don’t want the students to miss out, but we can’t do it for them.

Image source: Garbage Day Parade 2 by Jes (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)