Face-to-face discussions are different than online forums. How can we adapt?

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Problem: I've been struggling with the fact that online discussions are very different than face-to-face discussions, but instructors often use them as a replacement for face-to-face (F2F) discussions with little thought on their different affordances, and often using the same or similar prompts as used in F2F discussions.

Goals: The goals of this document are to differentiate online forum work from good F2F discussions, to help mitigate the many shortcomings they have, and to help instructors (and students) use these forum spaces in ways that *are* useful — rather than as a stand-in or replacement for a good F2F discussion.

 

Realizing that institutions are increasingly strongly encouraging hybrid and online courses, and recognizing that human nature tends to move existing paradigms (e.g. discussion) into new mediums (e.g. “online discussions”) — and often badly — I’m hoping to find a way to:

  • Identify and compare elements of F2F discussions and various types of online forums
  • Map out several SAMR transitions from “discussion” to “online forum”
    • Make online forums less terrible when substituted for discussions
    •  Identify and capitalize on the augmented affordances they provide that F2F discussions often don’t (asynchronous, proof-reading, careful thought, different structuring, etc.)
    • Determine ways to modify “standard discussion structures” to focus on those affordances
    • Redefine people’s understanding and usage of the online “discussion” forums in ways that *are* actually pedagogically good (but much different than F2F discussions).
  • Distribute across campus for blended and online courses.
    • How online forums and F2F discussions are different
    • Effective pedagogical practices for online forum spaces (and how to do)
    • (potentially, if the DP is interested: some “getting started" resources for better F2F discussions)

Comparing elements of “discussion/forum” mediums

Element / Medium

Face-to-face (f2f)

Synchronous text (St)

Synchronous video (Sv)

Asynchronous (As)

Structure

Often verbally introduced, sometimes with a guiding worksheet. 

Written or verbal instructions, often with little time to reflect on and prepare for the forum.

Written or verbal instructions, often with little time to reflect on and prepare for the forum.

Generally written or recorded video instructions.

Size

Can be whole-class or small groups, depending on physical space.

Can be whole-class or small groups.

Can be whole-class or small groups depending on software and bandwidth capabilities.

Can be whole-class or small groups.

Immediacy

Can occur immediately after introducing a topic. 

Can occur immediately after introducing a topic, or can be more flexibly -scheduled by groups. 

Can occur immediately after introducing a topic, or can be more flexibly -scheduled by groups.

Anchored (or “focused”) forums are short-lived and task-oriented (e.g. weekly forum for questions related to activities),  Threaded forums are persistent and process-oriented long-standing spaces that let students refine complex ideas throughout a course.

Nonverbals 

Great nonverbal communication possible between participants: facial expressions, posture, gestures, eye contact, touch, proximity, and voice.

Very little nonverbal options beyond emoji, emoticons, and interjections

Can allow good facial expression and voice nonverbals, but posture, gestures, eye contact, touch, and proximity are primarily mediated by camera position.

If structured to include audio and video media, it can be similar to Synchronous Video. If text-based, similar to Synchronous Text.

Additional materials

Difficult for participants to bring additional materials due to access and time constraints

With internet access, participants can find additional materials, but will miss parts of the discussion while searching for them (humans = bad multitaskers)

Because they have access to the internet, participants can find additional materials, but will miss parts of the discussion while searching for them (humans are bad at multitasking)

Participants have time for research/curation of additional materials between posting their contributions to the forum.

Monitor / assess

Difficult to monitor multiple groups. Often no record of contributions.

Hard to monitor multiple groups in real-time, but records are simple to scan afterward.

Difficult to monitor multiple groups. Recordings can provide a record of contributions, but are time-consuming to review.

Simplest to monitor.

Depth of thinking

Often minimal due to lack of prep time, and time to reflect on contributions of others before needing to respond.

Often minimal due to lack of prep time, and time to reflect on contributions of others before needing to respond.

Often minimal due to lack of prep time, and time to reflect on contributions of others before needing to respond.

Participants can develop their thoughts more deeply because they have preparation and reflection time when not actively participating.

Convenience

Generally difficult to schedule due to need for physical proximity.

Generally difficult to schedule due to the need for synchronous availability. (Easier with smaller groups)

Generally difficult to schedule due to the need for synchronous availability. (Easier with smaller groups)

Convenient, as participation is based around one’s own schedule.

Equity

Least equitable: Privileges able-bodied extroverts with resources to allow open schedules and time for travel. Biased against those who cannot be physically present, introverts, and other challenges.

Privileges fast typists and those with open schedules and no distractions. 

Privileges extroverts with good technology, high bandwidth, and open schedules.

Most equitable: Lets people participate in times and places that best fit their specific situation.

 

The SAMR Model

The SAMR Model is a framework created by Dr. Ruben Puentedura that categorizes four different degrees of classroom technology integration. The letters "SAMR" stand for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition.

It is a spectrum of steps for examining how one might use technology in teaching & learning, from “Substituting” one tool for another in accomplishing the goal of an activity, to “Augmenting” the goal with additional possibilities offered in a different tool, to “Modifying” the activity significantly to take advantage of possibilities offered by different tools, and to “Redefining” the activity because a new tool offers possibilities for deeper learning that were inconceivable with the prior tool.

For example, classroom “Discussions” are traditional face-to-face activities that take place with multiple people at the same time in a classroom. They both benefit from and are limited by the context of the classroom — resources available (space, time, additional materials, etc.), and abilities, power-dynamics, etc. of the group (outspoken, shy, dyslexic, privileges, socioeconomic status, etc.).

When traditional classroom discussions are moved online, the context of the classroom is changed in ways that affect communication, power, and equity. For example being interrupted and talked over isn’t possible in an asynchronous discussion, responses feel less rushed and can be more thoughtfully-constructed. If anonymity is protected, responses can be more honest with less fear of embarrassment or retribution. There are many other examples as well.

In moving traditional discussions to an online environment, one could choose to try to Substitute the goals and possibilities of a face-to-face conversation, but the possibilities that the online environment offers actually make it difficult to do so. Consider some examples of “discussion” as it might evolve with the SAMR framework:

Step

Prompt

Results

Substitution

Discuss applications of the concept “x” in your lives.

Participants are focused on each other. They spend struggle to determine who is leading the discussion, and what the instructors expectations are. One participant offers an example off the top of their head, and the group tries to make it work.

Augmentation

Discuss applications of the concept “x” in your lives, and find a good example from the internet.

Again, participants are focused on each other. They spend struggle to determine who is leading the discussion, and what the instructors expectations are. One participant offers an example off the top of their head, and the group tries to make it work. They may break off and each try to find an example, come back and compare those examples and vote on the best to present.

Modification

Find five examples of applications of the concept “x”, then rank and explain their effectiveness. 

Rather than determine a leader from the beginning, participants immediately start looking for examples — each deciding on their own what the expectations are. After finding and analyzing several examples each, they select their best choice and bring it back to the group. They each explain their example, and realize that different group members used different approaches, and expectations. They learn from each other’s perspectives while debating and negotiating group’s ranking.

Redefinition

Share a video clip of the concept of “x” in popular culture, and explain the elements demonstrated in the clip.

Again, participants immediately start looking for examples. In addition to finding examples they think the instructor will like, because of the “popular culture” phrase they factor into their analysis what they think their group members will like, and find examples that also portray their own likes/dislikes in a positive light (this generally requires analyzing many more examples). They return to the group with a personal example, share with each other, and negotiate one that best shows the group’s identity (thus building group cohesion, trust, and identity) to share with the ret of the class.

Adapting other Face-to-Face in-class discussions to online forums

Much like you and your students have adapted to new modalities and space for learning, the types of activities that help students achieve learning outcomes must also adapt to new modes of delivery. Consider how some of these “classic” face-to-face interactions might serve as the framework for an online forum assignment. 

  • Think-Pair-Share — Instructor poses a question, gives students a few minutes to think about a response, and then asks students to share their ideas with a partner. Ideas: Use Canvas Groups to get the conversation started and then synthesize student work with a short video presentation. 
  • Group Grid — Give groups pieces of information to place in blank cells of a grid according to category rubrics, which helps students clarify conceptual categories and develop sorting skills. Ideas: Similar to an Information Gap activity, use Google Sheets or a Text Matrix to assist students with categorizing and synthesizing course content.
  • Contemporary Issues Journal — Students find recent events or developments related to coursework, and identify connections to course material in entries that they journal and share. Ideas: Use Canvas Pages, Discussions, or Google Docs for students to reflect on the bigger picture, share their understanding of — and responses to — contemporary issues that align with their interests, and have a long-term picture of their learning. 

Humanizing asynchronous online forums

Studying the challenges posed in the asynchronous online discussion, Murray (2004) and Baker (2011) question how online discussions can better reflect the face-to-face dynamics of the classroom. The text-centric nature of the asynchronous discussion, they note, raises the following concerns:

Challenge

Strategies

Lack of visual connections (including silent responses), body language, and gestures

require profile pictures to append human faces to ideas, encourage students to post audio or video messages, allow “liking,”

Inability for self correction

allow students to edit and delete their own posts,

Ease of identifying or following a discussion matching students’ interests

allow students to create their own discussion threads,

Lack of social cues such as turn taking in a conversation, brevity, single-user dominated discussions

McFerrin and Christensen (2013) discuss the utility of a community-generated code of conduct

Please add your thoughts in the comments or. If you're willing to dig in more, please add directly to the Google document I'm developing.

Thanks!

John

2 Comments
Community Member

Thank you for sharing this! I'm curious to see how others got around using online forums without tying it to a grade.

Community Member

Thanks for the feedback caroline@teaching.ucla.edu! Tying the quality of a post to a grade is intimidating because in natural/comfortable conversations we don't (typically) speak as though we are being critically-evaluated — that's more in the realm of debate. But we do often feel some social pressure to be engaged, to react, to share an opinion, to encourage the speaker, and to keep a conversation going.

In problem-solving discussions we often put forth un-polished ideas in order to get feedback on them so we can (collaboratively) polish them and make them better. In my view, this is the heart of a pedagogical discussion/forum, so the question becomes "how can we create a space and culture of trust that encourages risk-taking and collaborative in good faith' effort from participants?"

Maybe the grade is tied to behaviors that do that?

About the Author
I run the Active Teaching Initiatives at UW-Madison. Our Active Teaching Labs are twice-weekly facilitated instructor discussions, sharing challenges and experiences in using technology to teach more effectively and efficiently. Leveraging Tech to TEACH is a semester-long class for faculty, staff, and graduate students. Leveraging Tech to LEARN is a semester-long fellowship where we meet with and learn from students about their best and worst teaching experiences.