Can real discussions ... real, thoughtful, meaningful, interesting, thought-provoking discussions authentically and realistically happen in the online classroom?! Naturally, you expect me to indicate the response is "yes."
However, let's face it. For those who teach online courses, the discussions can oftentimes seem like anything but. You post discussion questions. Students post responses. And a few classmates comment with the good old “I agree!” You all keep rolling on down the train track and never take a diversion from the straight and narrow.
Frankly, for this reason, you can sometimes dread going into the online classroom - even during the weeks when the topic is one of your favorites because ... well ... you know what you'll likely find. It does not feel like much of a discussion, and you sure wish you could change that without having to put in a lot of work and time.
I have just the remedy, and here's a technique you can try today even if you have discussion questions (DQs) that you are not at liberty to change!
Ask B.O.S.S. questions! Ask involving DQs, discussion questions that bring out serious substance (B.O.S.S.). These B.O.S.S. questions require evaluative and/or divergent thinking as opposed to convergent thinking. Divergent thinking moves students to veer off the straight track while convergent thinking involves staying on the straight and narrow with standard responses that call for little to no creativity.
Convergent thinking takes place when students are asked
These are typically considered ideal question stems for getting students to think more critically, and for the most part, they are, but in the online environment, they leave little room for creative thinking, and turning up the conversation to draw in multiple points of view. These questions are usually fairly easily answered by referencing the textbook or other course materials and regurgitating facts, theories, and/or definitions.
So what's the alternative? Check out this: those questions that call for divergent thinking start with
Do you see the difference?
Consider in an introductory Psychology course, the professor asks
“In what ways are Freud’s theories considered controversial?”
“Freud's theories have long been considered controversial. Pretend you lived during Freud’s time and worked alongside him as an intern. What did you learn during your time with him that could help you defend his controversial belief that human behavior is significantly influenced by sexual desire?”
The former would require the student to conduct a quick scan of the textbook whereas the latter has students think beyond the textbook and apply what they read. Yes, the latter is longer, but ... imagine the outcome!: longer student responses that go well beyond "I agree with everything you wrote."
Here are three simple steps to creating your own B.O.S.S. questions:
If you are a position where you are not at liberty to make changes to your course DQs and the ones you've been given appear to not lend themselves to creating the kinds of robust conversations for which you hope will take place in your classrooms, then believe it or not, you still have no worries at all. Seriously. It really is all good.
I understand you cannot abandon those DQs, but you can post follow-up questions, right?! Use the three aforementioned strategies to, in essence, create the DQs you would have written if you could, questions that dig more deeply and lead students to the kinds of discussions you want to see.