20th anniversary of Facilitating Online Learning

“Teaching online is definitely challenging and different than when we are doing it in person. However, I notice my students are more focused virtually than in class. There are fewer distractions, I guess, maybe, for some, and they have to watch the demonstration as it unfolds. My students know they have to turn in their data so they need to listen and ask for clarification if they didn’t understand. I try to support and encourage them to ask questions, wonder, and explore.” — Emerlyn Gatchalian, high school science teacher at Hercules High School, Hercules, CA, and Concord Consortium Teacher Ambassador

In Learning Everywhere During a Pandemic I wrote about approaches to remote professional learning, including strategies to build trust and engagement in videoconference learning settings. Some of the suggestions are aimed at what might be done to support live remote activities: structuring opportunities for peer reviewing each other’s work, providing low-stakes discussions such as introductions, group “lounges” for sharing resources, social chatter, or networking, and distinct technical help forums, separate from the content-based forums.

Facilitating Online Learning book cover

These ideas and more came from our early work in the 1990s on two major grants that helped launch the Concord Consortium: the very first Virtual High School, now VHS Learning, and an online professional development program for science teachers called INTEC. In 2000 we wrote Facilitating Online Learning: Effective Strategies for Moderators based on our work in these groundbreaking projects. The book is now celebrating its 20th anniversary!

Today with the outbreak of a worldwide pandemic, teachers everywhere have been thrust into adopting technology to teach. Modeling actionable strategies for professional development activities described in the @Concord article can certainly support teachers in learning how to engage students remotely on the fly. Additional strategies make it possible to deepen learning using technology, and although Facilitating Online Learning was written before Web 2.0 synchronous tools were available, we detailed several evergreen approaches for asynchronous learning that can enrich homework or offline work greatly by taking advantage of online discussion forums for continued collaborative inquiry learning.

Deepening online learning through discussions

Discussion forums in online courses are typically focused with a question about a reading, lab, activity, or local research or simple experiment, followed by a directive to “Post an initial response and then reply to two of your colleagues.” Too often, when any dialogue follows, it is in the form of a short reply to the student’s initial post with something akin to “I like your idea” followed by a “thank you” response. But these are social postings at best and do nothing to engage students in collaborative inquiry or dialogue. In other classes, often at the college level, instructors might see more content from their students, but one danger is that these may take the form of a declaration, in which the responses are parallel or even in competition with the initial posting. In K-12 education, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) science practices now explicitly encourage students to figure things out together. Modeling how this orientation can be achieved with online facilitation is essential for successfully building a collaborative culture in classroom communities, online and off, for any age group.

One simple change can lay the groundwork for opening up collaborative dialogue more effectively. Consider this example:

Please select your group’s thread below for sharing your initial thoughts/observations:

  • What do you notice?
  • Highlights/insights
  • Questions/concerns

Then respond to at least two of your colleagues in your group with an extension, suggestion, connection, possible solution, insight. Avoid evaluating your peer’s response. Build on their ideas in some way.

Our research in the early days taught us that when conversation is remote and eye contact and facial cues are missing, everything we might know about classroom discussion quickly falls away. Questions might be heard as “grilling” a colleague. Building on someone else’s idea or comment might seem intrusive or too much like trying to take over the insight. Making a simple suggestion might communicate criticism for not thinking of that approach on one’s own. However, when the instructor explicitly includes participation in online discussions in a course evaluation rubric and offers not only permission to be collaborative but encouragement, the conversations will begin to flow and student thinking will unfold on the discussion boards.

Moving out of the middle

Another common phenomenon is that teachers feel like they are obligated to respond to every student posting. Beware, however. This tactic is likely to backfire. In many ways, online classroom dynamics are parallel to face-to-face classrooms and the teacher will never have time to respond in a detailed way to students’ every utterance. Instead, build a culture of peer responsiveness into your online discussions. Initial essentials include building trust and engagement by communicating how you care about both the class and each student individually. For example, email early and often to both the group and individually. (Hint: Use a template email for everyone, customizing only the name.) It’s about initiating individual conversations. And note that in some online systems, you can do this by setting up private discussions with each student as well.

Provide lots of positive feedback to the group, calling out those who have jumped in to answer one another’s questions, giving permission to and supporting that level of engaged participation. If you don’t jump in answering everything, students will fill in to show what they know. Also, providing a clear “to do” checklist so students can easily self-assess how they are doing adds another feedback loop not dependent on your daily or weekly individualized attention.

In the first few rounds of discussion, communicate early with those who aren’t jumping in so they know you are present and care about their engagement. Use message subjects that aren’t scary (“Where’s your post?”), but instead value their ideas, for example, “Missing your voice.” Designing in peer reviews for project iterations or paper drafts, along with rubrics to frame feedback, provides additional feedback loops among students. Pedagogically, orchestrating these kinds of activities into peer-to-peer exchanges keeps as much of the learning as possible with the students themselves. They are likely to notice and correct their own work in the process of using a rubric to improve their peers’ drafts. And then, practice online wait time. That is, sit on your hands and wait, sometimes for 24 to 48 or more hours after a student has voiced a concern or asked a question. If you avoid stepping in right away, they will establish a culture of students responding to one another.

Finally, send a group weekly update over email or as a class announcement and devote a paragraph to how terrific it is to see students responding to one another, naming those who did so. Others will surely want to be mentioned in the next update, so they are more likely to start jumping in as well.

Overall, quality online pedagogy creates and sustains a teaching voice that is present (but not omnipresent) and avoids hijacking the learning, instead bringing student thinking and understanding forward. In the slowed-down environment of asynchronous conversation, these strategies can help set a tone of mutual, collaborative inquiry and give even normally quiet students the time they need to think, write, and respond thoughtfully. Further, student comments become a natural part of embedded assessment, easing the pressure on quizzes and testing to find out what students know.

We’re delighted that the insights we shared from our original work continue to be relevant for remote learning taking place today, though we could never have predicted the current circumstances that have forced so many teachers and learners online. Find even more effective strategies for online instructors in Facilitating Online Learning.