ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

Dialogue-intensive learning

By Richard Dool / July 2007

Print Email
Comments Instapaper

The discussion element of an online course, in theory, is the "classroom" where much of the instructor-student and student-student interaction takes place. To a large degree it is intended to approximate the on-campus class experience. But as most online instructors know, the online discussions, if designed appropriately, can far exceed the interactions in the campus classroom.

I have learned, however, that not all online discussions are created equally. In my online experiences—which include teaching in four different online programs as well as completing two master's and part of my doctorate online—I have witnessed three types of online discussions: the "Q&A" model, the "1-plus" model, and the "dialogue intensive" model.

Discussion Models

The "Q&A" model is built around a structured unit environment where the student has specific response tasks. Typically, the instructor will post a question related to the unit's topic and the students are required to post a single response to the question. There is little to no instructor-student interaction or student-student interaction. The instructor will often post a summary of the week and student input at the end of the unit. The primary value of this model is the sharing of approaches and perspectives in response to the specific question.

The "1-plus" model is built around a limited interactive model. Students are required to respond to a specific question in each unit and provide at least one response to their peer's postings. This model has the potential for more instructor-student interaction depending on the level of the instructor's engagement. However, in my experience student-student interaction has been limited. Many students tend to post the obligatory one response to a peer's posting. Others try to engage in more discussion but with limited responses, the discussion energy tends to dissipate.

The "dialogue intensive" model is built around the notion that much of the learning occurs with active instructor-student and student-student interaction. An initial discussion question is posed as a foundation, and as students respond and the instructor engages the discussion is extended through the sharing of professional experiences, personal insights, and other source materials. It is not atypical in a dialogue-intensive model for a week's unit to have 150-plus postings in a 10-student class.

I have been monitoring online student feedback for the last three years, specifically focusing on comments about the discussion elements of the class. The sample pool is relatively small: approximately 80 students from each discussion model. But there are clear patterns in the feedback. The dialogue-intensive model garnered the most commentary, the Q&A model the least. Approximately 67 percent of the students in the dialogue-intensive courses provided comments on the discussions. The 1-plus model received 29 percent comments and the Q&A model 17 percent. The dialogue-intensive model received predominantly positive comments (87 percent), while the other two models were generally mixed. The main difference in the commentaries was the emotion and depth in the comments. The dialogue-intensive model received significantly more in-depth and reflective comments than the other two models. For example:

This is not to say that the Q&A model or the 1-plus model are pedagogically weak or to suggest they do not have their value. However, it does seem clear from this anecdotal evidence that the dialogue-intensive model can create a deeper and richer learning experience for the students.

Framing the Dialogue-Intensive Model

It is very important to create an appropriate climate for this model. This starts with the proper expectations. The course syllabus must be very specific about the relative grade value of student engagement. The discussion's grade weight should be high enough to really matter (20 to 30 percent) and also divisible so that each course unit can be graded. For example, in a 15-week course, the student can earn two points per week or 30 points overall for active discussion participation.

Students also need to understand how discussion points are earned. The ideal method for discussion grading should be a blend of quantity and quality. The syllabus should have specific metrics for quantity as well as a rubric for quality.

Here's an example of a quantity grading metric:

Your discussion grade in each unit will be determined as follows, assuming an appropriate level of quality in the postings:

12+ quality postings: A (2 points)

9-12 quality postings: A- (1.85 points)

6 - 8 quality postings: B+ (1.75 points)

3 - 5 quality postings: B (1.7 points)

1 - 2 quality postings: C (1.5 points)

0 quality postings: F

Here's an example of a rubric for quality:

A quality posting has several characteristics. It is germane, succinct, and clear, ideally less than 150 words. It refers to the course material in an appropriate manner and also may make use of relevant outside material. Its main point or thesis is further supported by an example or experience that helps translate the application of the material. It adds or extends the discussion.

The instructor should also ensure a proper balance between "knowing and doing" in the discussions. Using course or outside materials (knowing) is important to the learning objectives, but the discussion comes alive with examples (doing). Students should be encouraged to share relevant professional experiences or to comment on relevant current events to illuminate the underlying discussion question.

To encourage interaction, the instructor should emphasize the minimums for participation-possibly seven postings over four days in the discussion week. This ensures the discussions are spread out a bit and also countermands the tendency to either post early and disappear or post frantically on the last day of the discussion. It is a good practice to expect the students to post their initial response on the first or second day of the discussion week.

The issue of discussion "etiquette" also must be addressed. I usually post a document called "A Survival Guide to Our Discussions." It covers again some of the discussion topics noted in the syllabus, plus issues related to organization of the discussion room (use of the subject line, how to respond to a posting, and how to post new threads), tone, language use, expectations about grammar and writing style, proper citations, and an admonition about respecting the discussion area.

Creating the Right Climate

Once expectations have been set, the instructor must create an active, positive climate for the discussions. It all starts with the discussion question. A good discussion question addresses the topic and aligns with the learning objectives but also allows students to bring in personal, relevant experiences or to extend the point by asking a tangential question or bringing in outside materials.

The key ingredient to the dialogue-intensive model is active engagement by the instructor. Ideally, the instructor bookends the course and actively guides the discussion the days in between. It is also helpful if the instructor mixes up his instructional style during the discussions. Many instructors have a favored approach. The Socratic method, for example, is very useful because it forces the student to think and offer his own perspective. Too much of this method and the students can get frustrated. I have found that shifting styles can help foster more interaction.

Another style is the devil's advocate. Students are often hesitant to challenge each other or the instructor. Playing devil's advocate can break down the hesitation and get students off the fence and into a debate. Of course, the debate must never be personal and should always be respectful. Debate can be fueled by asking follow-up questions: "Yes, but have you thought of this...or, "I understand your point but I would argue that... ."

A colleague often uses student leaders in her discussions. She assigns a different student to each discussion unit to act as the discussion leader. The student leader takes on the role of the facilitator. This can be very effective because it allows students to "see" the challenges of leading a discussion and it gives them greater appreciation for the need for active engagement. The instructor should use a soft touch and support the student leader by managing the boundaries of the discussion. The instructor does more "expert" posting when using this approach.

Managing Student Behaviors

Above all, the instructor must maintain a positive, safe atmosphere where students feel comfortable engaging. A dialogue-intensive model can be daunting, not every student embraces it just as not every student participates in the on-campus classroom. It is the instructor's job to make them comfortable enough to engage, or at least to prevent them from hiding. There are several student behaviors that can undermine the learning experience if not managed carefully.

Virtually every electronic classroom allows the instructor to see the student's activity level and postings. We know when they post and even how many words they average. Despite this, "the invisible man" will try and hide. The best methods I have found to deal with this type are to specifically engage the student and to provide discussion feedback both formally and informally during the class. I try to engage every student at least once in each discussion unit. I also provide informal discussion feedback every three weeks. I will comment on their activity level, the quality of their postings and interaction, and will often cite an example of their good work (if any). Usually, this will get them and keep them in the game.

Another problem behavior is the "Jane come lately:" the student who appears during the last two days of the discussion unit and posts madly to get to the minimum. Obviously, this behavior adds no real value to the discussion and can be very disruptive. The student needs to be called out right away and stopped by encouraging them to spread out their work.

Then there's the type who tries to look active without actually adding to the learning experience, leading to "You're wonderful, I could not agree more" postings. The best method to change this behavior is to engage the student in the discussion area as well as via private email. I have had success with this type of response: "Thanks, I'm glad you agree with Judy's point about trust and leadership. What have been your experiences in dealing with untrustworthy leaders?"

On the other end of the spectrum is the "dominator." The dominator often comes in two forms; the overachiever and the egotist. The overachiever dominates by sheer presence. I have had students posting 30-plus times in a week; the record was 44. We all appreciate commitment and a strong work ethic, but it needs to be corralled a bit. Overachievers' postings tend to be very strong, but 15 to 20 postings are actually better for intensive dialogue rather than 30-plus. The lower number serves as a good example and adds energy to the discussions without intimidating other students. The best method for handling is a soft email praising their work while also cautioning about burnout and reminding them to give other students a chance.

The egotist is disruptive and difficult to manage. His opinion is the right opinion and he finds it difficult to engage in equal discourse. He is thin-skinned and resistant to feedback. The only method that has seemed to help is direct contact off line, usually a live conversation where specific examples and suggestions can be discussed.

Two other student behaviors you may encounter, which can be very disruptive, are "the contrarian" and "the therapy-seeker." The contrarian delights in being outside the mainstream, often taking positions that are illogical or combative and instigating arguments in the discussion area. The instructor must monitor this carefully and intervene if necessary. The best method is to professionally challenge their points in the discussions. The therapy-seeker shares things from his personal or professional lives that are not only inappropriate but uncomfortable. In general, a soft reminder about staying on topic in the discussion board and a personal email or call to the student tends to take care of this.

Instructor Roles

The dialogue-intensive model requires focused and active engagement by the instructor. The instructor must be a facilitator, boundary setter, traffic cop, and chief cheerleader. If the instructor fails as facilitator, discussions tend to meander and rarely meet learning objectives. When discussions go off-topic or take unproductive tangents, the instructor must manage boundaries by nudging things back on track. A polite redirection may do the trick without sapping student energy.

The roles of traffic cop and chief cheerleader are two sides of the same coin. The instructor must regulate the level of discussion postings. If the quantity or quality is drifting, the instructor must energize students. If individual students are not doing their part, he must "ticket" them and get them on track. Cheerleading is just as important. Creating a positive environment is critical to intensive dialogue. Praising in public and criticizing in private, acknowledging focus and commitment, or thanking the class for a productive week are examples of how the instructor can motivate the class.

A CEO, a Nun, and a Rabbi

I taught a recent class with a CEO, nun, rabbi, social worker, police officer, and marketing representative, among others. The beauty of the dialogue-intensive model is the learning that can emerge from shared experiences and varied perspectives. There are very few opportunities in life to learn from such a diverse group, and it would be a shame not to leverage discussions for maximum benefit.

Students often report that the relationships they form in dialogu- intensive models far exceed that of on-campus courses. They know more about their online classmates than someone who sat next to them all semester every Thursday night in class. The online discussions are a living thing, and the instructor is the primary source of energy and pace. The dialogue-intensive model requires a consistent commitment from the instructor, but the result may be a richer and deeper learning experience for the instructor and students alike.


  • There are no comments at this time.