Online (computer-mediated) discussions seem to be increasingly adopted for learning interactions in legal education. The form and structure of these discussions vary widely, depending on the technology and the context adopted. The discussions can be synchronous or asynchronous, appear in relatively simple bulletin board style formats, or be embedded as part of more complex simulations. Synchronous discussions can provide “real time” flow, whereas asynchronous discussions provide flexibility for participants working in different time zones, or to different timeframes.
Social media offers learners a way of taking online discussions out of institutionally-based proprietary systems, and some legal educators use platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, for online discussions.
Most online discussions have in common the capacity to overcome distance between participants. Aside from flexibility, and assuming access to the necessary technology, this quality can improve equity and parity of access to participants who might not otherwise be able to participate in a learning event, e.g. rural or regional learners, or hearing-impaired learners.
It seems to me that some institutions perceive online discussions as a way of saving costs. I believe that this is not necessarily so, when taking into account learner satisfaction, and achievement of learning outcomes. It is true that some online discussions seem to fire up of their own accord, and this is great when it happens. On the other hand, where online discussions are used regularly and consistently as a medium for teaching and learning, and given the variability of social interactions, appropriate preparation before using online discussions is advisable.
Here, I provide 10 tips drawn from my work in online discussions, and my masters research completed in 2011.* I have not included references, but citations are included in the article linked below.
1: It does not matter what platform or software you use for online discussions, provided that it is robust, safe, and easy for your learners to access and use. My research suggests that “bells and whistles” are not particularly valued by learners, and are distracting. In my experience, proprietary systems custom-built for institutions tend not to do as well as freely available platforms, familiar to most learners these days.
2: Learner motivation and engagement can depend on many things. The fundamentals are: learners can see the activity as important and relevant to their learning; and learners can see they have resources they need to undertake the activity. Plain language guidance about these, before beginning the activity, is essential.
3: Be explicit about what you are looking for in the discussions. The “community of inquiry” framework is one way of discussing this:
- “Cognitive Presence”: learners’ participation made visible through engagement with questions and peers, reflective statements, discussions, and peer-to-peer feedback.
- “Social Presence”: learners’ projection of their personal, social, and affective characteristics, in ways appropriate to the context.
- “Teaching Presence”: made visible through the design and organisation of the activity, facilitation of the discussion, direct instruction (also timely stepping in to clear up errors or ambiguities), and linking insights to learning outcomes.
4: In my research, I found that learners value peer-to-peer discussions very highly, and are dissatisfied if they do not receive individual feedback from their peers, in addition to the teacher’s feedback.
5: Whilst learners highly value peer-to-peer interactions, they also value the teacher’s timely interjections when the group is struggling with something.
6: Learners expect to receive from the teacher, individual, relevant, and timely feedback. Learn about those who are in the group. Knowing about learners’ past experiences with discussions can be informative.
7: That said, learners are dissatisfied if the teacher dominates the discussion. So teachers need to get a sense of when to hold back, and give the learners a chance to develop their sense of community.
8: Like a good dinner party, learn when to clear the table, and bring out the next course (instructions, interjections, discussion topics, activities).
9: Assessment – this can motivate engagement, but is also a recipe for superficial participation, and group dissatisfaction. If you intend to grade participation in discussions, be very clear about how this is done, and if possible supply a rubric as a point of reference.
10: A light touch – sparingly feed in relevant and current materials, like blog posts and streaming videos – be clear about whether extrinsic material speaks to the learning objectives, and furthers understanding.
* Greaves, K & Lynch, J, 2012, ‘Is The Lecturer In The Room? A Study Of Student Satisfaction With Online Discussion Within Practical Legal Training’, Legal Education Review, vol. 22, no. 1&2, pp. 147-75. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2308691