Discussion was the element of my college classes I enjoyed most. I loved sitting in a class with a diverse group of people discussing literature, historical events, and political issues. In those discussions, I was challenged to stretch as a student and a person. I found I learned most effectively by talking with and listening to my peers.
My belief in the power of discussion drove me to focus on it while pursuing my master’s degree in education. I wanted to create a safe space in my high school classroom to lower students’ affective filters and engage them in dynamic discussions to drive higher-order thinking.
Was I successful in this as a new teacher? No. In fact, I failed for seven years to make any kind of meaningful discussion happen in my classroom. Each time I presented a discussion question in class, the same three or four students dominated the discussions while the rest of the class sank low in their chairs and avoided eye contact.
I eventually decided to try using a free online-discussion platform (I chose one called Collaborize Classroom) to replace some of my pen-and-paper homework. I was skeptical, but desperate for a better way to engage my students.
To my shock and delight, the night I posted my first discussion question online, the first three students to respond were kids who never spoke in my class. It was my “ah-ha” moment. These kids wanted a voice but previously I had not found a way to give them an opportunity to comfortably engage in the class dialogue. It turns out that my students were interested, insightful, curious, and quite vocal ... online.
The eagerness with which students took to the online space was stunning. I asked my students about this transformation. They said things like, “I like having time to think about the questions,” “It is interesting reading what other kids in the class have to say,” and, “It isn’t as scary discussing stuff online.” It was clear that they’d had a variety of reasons for choosing not to engage in the classroom.
Setting the Norms for Online Exchanges
Much of my students’ success was the product of the foundational work I did in the beginning stages of our online discussions. I approached the work with careful intention to create a safe space online that mirrored the respectful environment in our physical classroom.
Despite being “digital natives” who regularly engage with their friends online, I realized my students had no idea how to contribute to an academic conversation online in a respectful, supportive, and substantive way. Rarely do they see the look on the face of the person receiving a hastily written text or Facebook message. In short, they did not know how powerful their words are. They had to be taught how to communicate online.
I began slowly. I created a “Do’s and Don’ts of Online Student Communication,” which I shared with students prior to our first conversation. I wanted them to know exactly what was expected of their participation online. This was a digital extension of our classroom, but it was a different environment that demanded some specific guidelines.
To begin with, I stressed the importance of using names when replying to each other’s postings. This creates a friendly atmosphere and helps foster community among classmates. I reminded students that their peers cannot see their body language or hear their tone of voice online, so everyone must keep their language direct and respectful.
I put emphasis on proper etiquette in our online space: Compliment classmates for strong, original postings, and critique the comment rather than criticize the person.
I underscored the importance of staying open-minded, avoiding slang, and not using all caps, which can be interpreted as yelling. I explained that sarcasm is counterproductive and can make other students feel unsafe sharing their ideas. I advised them to avoid emotional punctuation, like exclamation points, unless they were complimenting an idea shared, and to always be courteous when answering questions addressed directly to them.
Here are some additional strategies I gave my students:
• Read questions and conversational postings carefully to avoid unnecessary confusion.
• Ask questions. If anything is unclear or you want further information, just ask.
• Listen to all ideas presented. Remember there is no right or wrong in a discussion. A variety of perspectives add depth.
• Respond instead of reacting. Do not write a response if you are angry or upset. Instead, wait until you have had time to calm down and collect your thoughts.
• Really read your peers’ responses. Avoid skimming. Respect the time your peers spent articulating their thoughts by reading carefully and thoughtfully.
Once the expectations for behavior were clear, I focused on developing an online community by using icebreakers to help build relationships. This gave students an opportunity to practice the “Dos and Don’ts of Online Communication,” and it provided me with examples of student work so I could gently correct missteps and highlight strong contributions online.
The results were vibrant, interesting discussions that evolved from me asking the questions to my students designing questions for their peers to discuss.
An Unexpected Shift
Our brick-and-mortar classroom experienced a transformation, too. Students began entering the room discussing topics from the previous night’s homework, addressing each other by name, and freely engaging in real-time conversations.
About six weeks into the first semester, I posted a controversial debate topic online, and then allotted 10 minutes for a follow-up debate in class. Twenty-five minutes into the debate, there were seven hands in the air and the bell rang. For the first time ever, I had to stop an in-class discussion. It was the most exciting moment of my teaching career up to that point. It demonstrated how transformative technology could be when used to give every student a voice.
From there, my classes became increasingly dedicated to student-centered activities that built on our online discussions, debates, writing assignments, and collaborative group work. Now, instead of passive observers, my students are active and eager participants who are confident that their voices have value.