Many courses rely on in-class discussions for analysis, collaboration, and active engagement. Instructors and students are both used to the rhythm of this activity. When part or all of the discussion must take place online, however, the rhythm changes.
Whole-class discussions and small group discussions can be done via videoconference with little adjustment, at least for smaller classes.
For whole-class discussions, be sure you specify what students should do to indicate they wish to speak. This might be using the hand-raising function, a statement in the videoconference chat tool, or simply turning on their video if you ask students to keep it off until they speak. Talk with your class to see what indicator will work best for both you and them.
Small group discussions of 3-5 students allow all participants to see each other clearly, and while transmission lag will take some getting used to, a simple reminder to have patience with each other’s technology may be all you need. If students still experience trouble with sometimes talking over each other, due to the lag, you might also suggest that they use some visual signal to amplify the normal exchange of glances and small gestures that negotiates who will speak, in a group. Students may want to raise their hands within the small group, so everyone can see that someone has an idea to speak about! Another possibility is a note-card or sheet of paper with “Thought” written on it.
Managing discussions with more than 20 students may present a challenge. With that many in a videoconference, it becomes hard to see participants clearly, and relying on the raised hand function may feel like it slows down the accustomed rate of discussion. If you find this to be the case, seriously consider breaking students into small groups and putting them in breakout rooms. The groups can have a good, genuine discussion experience, and report their thoughts to the larger group, either out loud or via a Google Doc.
If you wish to hold a class discussion in which some students are present in-person while some are present by videoconference, the issues above will combine with the challenges of having two very different modes in which students are interacting at the same time.
In-person students will need coaching to raise their voices more than usual, to be picked up by the room’s microphone. Even instructors with fairly small classes may find it helpful to adopt the lecture-class tactic of re-stating discussion points or questions to make sure everyone heard.
Online students will need both to have an agreed-upon method of indicating they want to speak, and someone in-person minding that method. We do not recommend the instructor attempt to both manage the discussion and also mind the chat or Zoom screen. Instead, consider rotating the duty among the in-person students or requesting an Undergraduate Teaching Assistant to help you manage both groups.
An alternative approach that some classes may find more fruitful is to have computers and devices open in class, and ask remote students to interact primarily by text rather than by audio. Canvas course chat or an ActiveClass chat-board would be a good option, demanding less of everyone’s devices and the building network than having Zoom active on all computers. In-person students could then read the remarks of remote students directly, and respond directly, whether out loud or by text. This sort of discussion would require some adjustment for the instructor to manage effectively, but might offer a better student experience in some cases.
In either of the above cases, you may wish to scaffold the synchronous discussion with a pre-class asynchronous activity to help students brainstorm or gather their thoughts for more focused discussion in-class. There are a variety of discussion tools available to choose from, depending on the approach you think will work best for your class. When using any of them, you may find the CRLT’s resources for discussion-based teaching helpful, especially Using Discussion Questions Effectively. Those will help in composing effective discussion prompts.
If you are using an asynchronous tool for the primary discussion, we recommend breaking students into two or three “phases.” Phase One responds to the discussion prompt. Phase Two responds to the Phase One posts, with specific directions to analyze or add additional research. Phase Three responds to Phase Two posts, with similarly specific directions to deepen the discussion further. Good prompts and clear directions are a key part of such an asynchronous discussion, but they pay off with in-depth and thoughtful discussions. If you use this model, rotate the groups so all students can practice each phase.
Students and instructors may both find it difficult to listen and keep their attention on discussions, at times. A small box or a screen are not as easy to engage with as a live person making full use of body language to communicate. Consider using notes during discussion, as well as lecture. Writing down thoughts as you have them means that you can use more of your focus on comprehension without fearing that you’ll lose track of ideas. Don’t be afraid to ask people to slow down or speak up, or to repeat things if you miss them, and be prepared to listen if other people request that you do so.