Asynchronous conversation matters: Part II
Meaningful online asynchronous discussion requires careful planning. Using the tips from this article, teachers can create questions that will generate enthusiasm for a topic and motivate students to think critically and practice skills of collaborative dialogue.
Asynchronous conversations are a great way for teachers to extend learning beyond the borders of the traditional school day. After selecting a service to host your classroom’s asynchronous forums — a process introduced in Part I of this series — you’ll be ready to structure your conversations and to introduce your students to the differences between formal and informal online dialogue.
Structuring asynchronous conversations
One of the biggest mistakes that teachers make when attempting to integrate asynchronous communication into their classroom practice is underestimating the amount of structure that online conversations need in order to be successful. Like any good activity, careful planning is an essential first step towards creating digital discussions that lead to real learning. To ensure that asynchronous conversations are successful in your classroom, you’ll need to answer three basic questions:
- What initial questions and/or content will spark student thinking?
- How will my students make contributions to our ongoing conversation?
- Who is going to monitor and/or moderate comments added to our digital discussion?
What initial questions and/or content will spark student thinking?
Digital conversations are really no different than the face-to-face conversations that you facilitate in your classroom: They’re dependent on questions and/or content that can hook students. Carefully polishing the initial strands that you plan to post in digital forums can go a long way towards ensuring that your discussions are engaging and productive.
The chances are good that you already have a sense for the kinds of questions that leave students mentally jazzed. After all, you know your content and your kids better than anyone. Pulling from the thinking that always brings energy to your lessons or building strands around the common misconceptions that your students hold about the topics you’re studying in class are great ways to draw students into digital discussions. Today’s teens are also motivated by issues connected to justice and injustice and are motivated to think about the world that they will inherit.1
Regardless of how you choose the initial content for classroom conversations, be sure that your students are always working at the higher end of Bloom’s taxonomy. Create questions using sentence starters like, “What alternatives can you think of for _______?” “What impact will _______ have on your life?” “Who stands to gain from _______?” “Who will lose because of ________?” Open-ended questions leave room for all students to enter your discussions and force your students to imagine and evaluate — thinking skills that are at once productive and motivating.
How will my students make contributions to our ongoing conversation?
Once you’ve crafted a series of initial questions designed to draw students into your digital discussion, you’ll need to devise a strategy for giving all students the chance to contribute. Begin by defining your own goals for your conversation. If you’re simply looking to steal online minutes from your students, you might decide that participation will only occur beyond the school day. While this limits participation to students who can access the Internet from home, it is the easiest way to introduce asynchronous conversations to your classrooms because it doesn’t require any school-based resources or time.
Teachers who feel strongly about ensuring that every child participates in asynchronous forums, however, will often use digital conversations as a center activity that students rotate through during the course of several class periods. Others will bring entire classrooms to the media center or computer lab at the same time to make contributions to an ongoing conversation. Even teachers without access to working computers at school can mentally connect students to the content developing in online conversations by stimulating in-class discussions or reflection based on provocative questions asked in asynchronous forums.
Regardless of the approach that you take to engaging students in digital discussions, blurring the lines between your classroom and the online learning spaces that you’re introducing to your students generates enthusiasm and motivation.
Who is going to monitor and/or moderate comments added to our digital discussion?
While most teachers who introduce asynchronous conversations to their classes find that students act responsibly and post only content that is appropriate and interesting, it is always possible for inappropriate content to be added to any digital forum. Guarding against inappropriate content requires a systematic plan for monitoring and moderating additions to ongoing discussions.
In many classrooms, monitoring and moderating content starts and ends with the teacher, who reads every new idea added to digital discussions. While this approach is thorough and professionally responsible, it can also be overwhelming — particularly when conversations are highly motivating to students. That’s why many teachers train student moderators who are in charge of tracking the contributions added to individual strands of asynchronous conversations. If student moderators spot inappropriate content, they can bring it to the attention of the classroom teacher, who can quickly track the comment back to its contributor, copy it for documentation purposes, and remove it from the discussion.
Carefully crafting and communicating plans for monitoring and moderating comments added to asynchronous conversations will accomplish several tasks. First, it will assure parents and principals that digital discussions won’t spiral out of control or become an embarrassment to your school. It will also make it clear to students who might consider stretching the rules that their work is being monitored and that inappropriate contributions will not be tolerated. Finally, it will help you to quickly sift through contributions, finding strands of conversation that are worth sharing and deleting.
Introducing students to the differences between formal and informal online dialogue
Another common trap that teachers fall into when integrating asynchronous communication into their classroom practice is assuming that students who have grown up online already understand what good digital conversations look like. While it is true that today’s students are generally comfortable with the tools for connecting, they rarely understand how to build connections with one another. As a result, it is essential for classroom teachers interested in extending learning in online forums to show their students how previewing a conversation, asking good questions, and responding to others can make discussions more enjoyable and productive.
The importance of previewing
Today’s teens are generally impatient, infosnacking their way through online content. They browse quickly, clicking on links and avoiding information that looks intimidating. Described as “fortuitous searching” by researchers Heather Horst, Becky Herr-Stephenson, and Laura Robinson,2 students rely on intuition and speed rather than methodical thinking while consuming online content.3 This quick thinking can destroy digital conversations.
To make sure that your students work through conversations carefully and identify strands of thinking worth building on, encourage participants to preview the initial content and the comments peers have already added before diving into digital discussions. Consider requiring students to answer a series of questions before adding comments to any conversation — “Which strand of conversation has caught your attention?” “Why?” “Are there ideas that your peers and partners haven’t considered yet?” “What is missing from this discussion?” “Who do you agree with?” “Who do you disagree with?” “Why?” Also, consider crafting a simple previewing handout to share with students who are working with digital discussions for the first time. A sample is available in PDF format and online.
Good questions matter
Good conversations — regardless of where they are held — are dependent on good questions, aren’t they? Good questions serve as hooks, drawing others into discussions, and show a willingness on the part of participants to look inside the minds of their peers. Without good questions, conversations quickly become nothing more than a series of one-way speeches — and one-way speeches are inherently boring.
Building the questioning capacity of your students takes constant reinforcement. Trained to believe that conversations are competitive — a pattern modeled by elected officials and played out each election cycle — students often know little about the role that questions can play in stimulating thinking. That means every time a good question is added to one of your digital discussions, spotlight and celebrate it in your classroom. Publicly praise students who ask questions that lead to new strands of conversation. Show how your own thinking was sparked by a student-generated question. Finally, provide sets of simple question starters — “I wonder if ______ .” “Do you believe that _______ ?” “How would things change if ______ ?” “What other choice do we have besides ______ ?” — for students to use when working in asynchronous forums. Doing so will elevate the overall quality of the conversations that your students are having online.
Responding to others
If you’ve ever watched students working together on school projects, you’ve probably noticed an interesting pattern: Students are generally uncomfortable responding to their peers. Taught that being polite is essential and that challenging others is rude, students are typically willing to listen but are rarely willing to push against the thinking of others. As a result, the give-and-take that defines the most engaging discussions is often absent from student conversations.
Changing this pattern in your classroom requires systematic efforts on your part to encourage students to respond to their peers. Model the kinds of language that can be used to challenge thinking without challenging people. Add outrageous comments to strands of your digital discussion that students will simply have to disagree with. Provide class grades for conversations based on the amount of interaction between participants. Celebrate places where students were willing to push against something that you’ve said in a digital discussion and introduce a series of simple templates like these that students can use to craft comments for conversations. Doing so will ensure that your asynchronous forums are vibrant places where your students can interact with content and practice the skills of collaborative dialogue.
Examples of asynchronous conversations
Often, the greatest challenge for teachers interested in making asynchronous communication an important part of their classroom practice is imagining what’s possible. The following conversations — which were all structured using VoiceThread and involved middle grades social studies, science and language arts students — may serve as valuable examples for you. Notice how the teacher uses provocative images and/or quotes as the starting point for each strand of conversation. Also, notice how students comfortably use questions to stimulate conversation and show a willingness to respond to the thoughts of their peers:
- Why Do People Hate?: Designed as a follow-up to an in-class Socratic seminar between one class of sixth graders and one class of eighth graders, this conversation is focused on a question that is always motivating to middle schoolers: Why do people hate? Notice how each slide begins with a provocative question asked by “Darth Tater,” one of the two teachers involved in the project. Also, notice the detail and elaboration added by students to each strand of conversation.
- Many Voices on Darfur: Created as a part of an international project designed to raise awareness about the genocide occurring in Darfur, this conversation is interesting because it uses images — political cartoons, to be exact — as the primary stimuli for the conversation. While viewing, notice how students start new strands of conversation and draw new conclusions based on their own interpretation of the images that are serving as prompts for each discussion strand.
- Mutation Videos: Block 3: Designed specifically to encourage students to practice giving and receiving feedback, this conversation asks participants to rate the overall quality of science-based videos produced by student groups. Each slide starts with a general overview added by the student groups responsible for the video being reviewed. Then, classmates openly comment on the strengths and weaknesses of the final product created.
In the end, each of these samples proves that high-quality asynchronous conversations that extend learning and engage students are within your reach. Spending the time to carefully structure your conversations before opening them to your classes and then working to introduce your students to the differences between formal and informal online discussions are, however, essential steps to ensuring success.