OLC Innovate Reflections | Discussions With a Twist

I attended a lot of great sessions at OLC Innovate last week. One of the good ones was about how to shake up discussion acitivities in online courses to make them less about checking off the boxes of original posts and required responses and more about applying concepts in practice. Laurie Berry and Kristin Kowal of University of Wisconsin Extended Campus presented their suggestions in a cocktail-themed session and offered attendees “recipe cards” of tips for “mixing up” one’s own discussion activities online.

I liked that the presenters emphasized that these activities should not replace traditional discussions 100% of the time. I think it’s valuable to understand that online students have come to expect certain practices, and straightforward discussions might be one of the reasons students take online courses. Asking students to occassionally step outside the box and think about a task in a new way is perfectly acceptable and a good flex of their learning processes.

To be fair, some of the restructured activities are strategies that I have tried before, but Kristin and Laurie offered suggestions on how to overcome the most-often-recieved pushback from students in addition to how to structure the new activities. Their suggestions began with one that I have not seen done before. Instead of asking students to provide a summary of readings on a concept, the “twist” was to have the students locate and photograph the concept in action in their day-to-day routines. The example the presenters gave was instead of asking students to explain how retail environments use persuasion techniques, students were asked to take a picture of a retail environment and identify instances of persuasion at work. What I liked about this was that it’s really practical and it makes students aware of real-life applications in their everyday lives, which is something I think higher ed often lacks.

Another activity that was new to me was asking students to have a conversation about a topic in class with someone outside the class, such as a colleague or family member, and then report back on the discussion they had with that person. The reasoning behind this was that students often will have to explain the concept to the other person before a conversation can be had, and the old saying goes that teaching another person about a topic helps you remember that topic yourself. Some flexible options for this activity included the ability to complete it over the phone or on a videochatting service like Skype or Zoom. This seemed like a great one to me because it lets multiple perspectives from outside the class into the discussion space, providing new insights for students to reflect on. Plus, with so many different people now participating in the conversation, students are bound to have unique experiences to share about. This “twist” and the first twist both seem like fairly easy lifts in terms of how to structure the discussion activities around them. The first suggestion might be tough for some concepts in some disciplines, but this second twist is one that students from any class can utilize.

The next two offerings were strategies that I had already seen used, structured debate and role play. The presenters, anticipating that many in the audience may have used these before, had some tips ready to offer. For debates, questions should have no clear “right or wrong” sides, and evaluating the quality of the other side’s arguments should be incorporated into the activity in responses. I thought that was a fantastic point - asking students to also focus on why a person’s response is effective or not is a really useful way to help someone think about how to make their own arguments more effective. When it came to role play, Kristin and Laurie suggested assigning roles randomly, make sure participants conducted research from the perspective of their assigned role, and ask students summarize their research and state their role’s position on a multi-faceted issue. Asking students to switch perspectives as their “response” post was one way to ensure students would examine an issue from multiple perspectives, and the same suggestion about evaluating the arguments and sources that other classmates used was also applicable here.

The last “twist” was one I’d used in person but not online: the fishbowl discussion. When they presented this one, I was really interested to see what their suggestion was for the online version. (A quick summary of a traditional fishbowl: the activity involves two groups of students, an “inner circle” and “outer circle.” The inner circle discusses the topic based on readings or research while the outer circle observes and discusses the quality of the conversation occuring. Then they switch.) Online, Kristin and Laurie suggested that students be split into two teams. Team A should discuss as they normally would, but Team B was responsible for observing the discussion and writing a reflection paper afterward. The presenters shared their rubric for grading the reflection papers, which directed students to state one fact learned, one surprising thing, the best takeaway, and identify what they want to explore more in depth as a result of the discussion. I really liked this idea because I think this helps students not only reinforce the concept being discussed, but also makes them more aware of discussion strategies like how to make a convincing argument or back up your stance.

At the end of the session, each attendee got up and dropped a colored ping pong ball into a bucket to “vote” for their favorite strategy. I’m not sure which one won out, but I thought it was an excellent way to engage the audience and like I said, I love my recipe card style reference sheet! Ultimately, what I liked about this session was that the presenters’ suggestions all centered on ways to incorporate more reflection into discussion activities, which is what they are truly supposed to be about. I think that gets lost in modern-day learning experiences, so I’m excited to have these in my back pocket to try now!