How do we know that the online student is really grasping the subject matter, I mean really grasping it? We can assess and grade the assignments submitted in Blackboard, or monitor the quiz results. This gives us a sense of their understanding of the material, but how about that investment in the learning or that enthusiasm in participating in the class. At the end of each semester, I send out class evaluations to my online students. I’m curious about their online class experience and ask questions that focus more on their sense of connection to the class. I ask students to rate their answers from 1 (very poor) to 5 (Excellent).
A few examples are;
How would you rate your feeling of being connected to the class?
Did you feel safe in expressing your views on the discussion board?
Did you feel the subject material presented was relevant and interesting?
Rate your overall online class experience.
At the end of the survey, I ask students to make any comments they would like to make regarding their personal online experience. Comments have varied; a few comments seem common with students such as;
Discussions that are relevant to the student in their everyday lives are really appreciated by the students.
Keeping the discussions open-ended so students can keep discussions ongoing an allow students to not only explore the topic but learn other opinions and attitudes of others students.
Making students feel safe in the online environment. Maintaining an open honest environment.
So I have maintained a format for all my online classes. All discussion board post, as well as any written assignments, should relate more to the personal experiences and attitudes of the student. Discussions are not based on the textbook, but rather personal life experiences related to the questions that are up for discussion. This does require monitoring and setting the tone from the beginning of the class. This can be done by setting the example of how we respond and perhaps challenge our students in the way we ask additional questions. The quickest way to shut down a discussion is to make a student fell put down or feel attacked. Students need to feel safe in any online discussion.
All questions should be presented in such a way that each student should be able to relate to each question and how it may relate to their current lives or how they would see it relating to their future lives. What makes a question interesting is relevancy. If I can relate to it, then I have something to say about it. Personalizing the online experience in the discussion board seems to allow the students investment in the class and brings the students closer to each other. I tell students from the beginning of class that there is no right or wrong answer in these online discussions, but students always need to explain their thinking in justifying their opinions and comments.
So what have I learned about online discussions, especially in keeping the online class energized and engaged?
- Create a safe environment
- Make your topic relevant to the student
- Keep the questions open-ended to encourage a more open dialogue
- Make expectations clear to students from the beginning
- Make your presence known to students by posting announcements, reminders, and providing feedback to comments and assignments.
The best way to learning what is working in your class and what’s not working is to ask your students for feedback. I sometimes ask students questions about the questions I present on the discussion board. Did they feel it helped in their understanding of the chapter that is being reviewed that week? Asking students for feedback could be the best possible way of better understanding the question we always ask ourselves; are my students understanding the information as well as having a positive online experience?