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1.3 Supporting your own learners

Unless you have joined this course with a ‘study buddy’ or as part of a study group, any learning conversations will take place outside the course. That is because the course has been designed so that people can work through it individually. The comments you can open when you have completed an activity and the prompts on quiz questions provide a limited form of interactivity, but there are no opportunities for discussion.

Many online courses designed for groups or cohorts provide opportunities for learners to communicate with each other, often via forums.

In a classroom, educators can guide conversation and set the tone. Online, this support needs to be built into the course. Many learners will need guidance about why, when, and how to engage in discussion.

Reasons for engaging in discussion include:

  • explaining ideas;
  • asking and responding to questions;
  • sharing relevant information and resources;
  • presenting reasoned challenges;
  • offering different perspectives;
  • building on what has gone before;
  • linking ideas;
  • establishing connections between theory and experience;
  • making plans;
  • reflecting on what has happened.

Each of these can be linked explicitly with a benefit for the students. For example, ‘In the discussion area, suggest links between these ideas and the ones in the previous section IN ORDER TO understand the relationships between them’ or ‘Reflect on what well in the activity and how it could have been improved BECAUSE next week’s activity will be similar’.

Ways of showing that discussion is valued on a course including setting aside time for it. Students need time not only to go the forum, find their way around and make their own contribution, but also to read and respond to other contributions. The first people to post will need to return to read the posts of others. Allow at least as much time for discussion as you would in a face-to-face setting and be specific about which activities require discussion so that learners are aware when they should engage with the forum.

Awarding marks for engaging in discussion is another way of showing that this activity is valued. In some cases, marks can be awarded simply for participating in the discussion. In others, learners can be asked to select contributions and submit them for assessment. For example: ‘Give an example, with link, of a reflection you posted in the forum’ or ‘Share your project plan, explaining how it was influenced by the group discussion, and including links to one or more relevant discussion posts’.