Affordances of Online Discussions
This document is part of a larger collection of documents meant to guide instructors on how to design and deliver meaningful online discussions during remote instruction. To see all documents on this topic, go to Discussions Topic .
Use Online forums differently than face-to-face discussions. They offer different affordances and constraints,
Comparing Elements of Discussion/Forum Mediums
|Element||Face-to-face||Synchronous text||Synchronous video||Asynchronous|
|Structure||Often verbally introduced, sometimes with a guiding worksheet.||Written or verbal instructions, often with little time to reflect on and prepare for the forum.||Written or verbal instructions, often with little time to reflect on and prepare for the forum.||Generally written or recorded video instructions.|
|Size||Can be whole-class or small groups, depending on physical space.||Can be whole-class or small groups.||Can be whole-class or small groups depending on software and bandwidth capabilities.||Can be whole-class or small groups.|
|Immediacy||Can occur immediately after introducing a topic.||Can occur immediately after introducing a topic, or can be more flexible — scheduled by groups.||Can occur immediately after introducing a topic, or can be more flexible — scheduled by groups.||Anchored (or “focused”) forums are short-lived and task-oriented (e.g. weekly forum for questions related to activities). Threaded forums are persistent and process-oriented long-standing spaces that let students refine complex ideas throughout a course.|
|Nonverbals||Great nonverbal communication possible between participants: facial expressions, posture, gestures, eye contact, touch, proximity, and voice.||Very little nonverbal options beyond emoji, emoticons, and interjections||Can allow good facial expression and voice nonverbals, but posture, gestures, eye contact, touch, and proximity are primarily mediated by the camera position.||If structured to include audio and video media, it can be similar to Synchronous Video. If text-based, similar to Synchronous Text.|
|Additional materials||Difficult for participants to bring additional materials due to access and time constraints.||Because they have access to the internet, participants can find additional materials but will miss parts of the discussion while searching for them (humans are bad at multitasking)||Because they have access to the internet, participants can find additional materials but will miss parts of the discussion while searching for them (humans are bad at multitasking).||Participants have time for research/curation of additional materials between posting their contributions to the forum.|
|Monitor/assess||Difficult to monitor multiple groups. Often no record of contributions.||Hard to monitor multiple groups in real-time, but records are simple to scan afterward.||Difficult to monitor multiple groups. Recordings can provide a record of contributions but are time-consuming to review.||Simplest to monitor.|
|Depth of thinking||Often minimal due to lack of prep time, and time to reflect on contributions of others before needing to respond.||Often minimal due to lack of prep time, and time to reflect on contributions of others before needing to respond.||Often minimal due to lack of prep time, and time to reflect on contributions of others before needing to respond.||Participants can develop their thoughts more deeply because they have preparation and reflection time when not actively participating.|
|hConvenienceh||Generally difficult to schedule due to the need for physical proximity.||Generally difficult to schedule due to the need for synchronous availability. (Easier with smaller groups)||Generally difficult to schedule due to the need for synchronous availability. (Easier with smaller groups)||Convenient, as participation is based around one’s own schedule.|
|Equity||east equitable: Privileges able-bodied extroverts who have resources to allow open schedules and time for travel. Biased against those who cannot be physically present, introverts, and other challenges.||Privileges fast typists and those with open schedules and no distractions.||Privileges extroverts with good technology, high bandwidth, and open schedules.||Most equitable: Lets people participate in times and places that best fit their specific situation.|
Evolve your Discussion Strategies
The SAMR Model is a framework created by Dr. Ruben Puentedura that categorizes four different degrees of classroom technology integration. The letters "SAMR" stand for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition.
It is a spectrum of steps for examining how one might use technology in teaching & learning, from “Substituting” one tool for another in accomplishing the goal of an activity, to “Augmenting” the goal with additional possibilities offered in a different tool, to “Modifying” the activity significantly to take advantage of possibilities offered by different tools, and to “Redefining” the activity because a new tool offers possibilities for deeper learning that were inconceivable with the prior tool.
For example, classroom “Discussions” are traditional face-to-face activities that take place with multiple people at the same time in a classroom. They both benefit from and are limited by the context of the classroom — resources available (space, time, additional materials, etc.), and abilities, power-dynamics, etc. of the group (outspoken, shy, dyslexic, privileges, socioeconomic status, etc.).
When traditional classroom discussions are moved online, the context of the classroom is changed in ways that affect communication, power, and equity. For example, being interrupted and talked over isn’t possible in an asynchronous discussion, responses feel less rushed and can be more thoughtfully-constructed. If anonymity is protected, responses can be more honest with less fear of embarrassment or retribution. There are many other examples as well.
|Substitution||Discuss applications of the concept “x” in your lives.||Participants are focused on each other. They spend struggle to determine who is leading the discussion, and what the instructor’s expectations are. One participant offers an example off the top of their head, and the group tries to make it work.|
|Augmentation||Discuss applications of the concept “x” in your lives, and find a good example from the internet.||Again, participants are focused on each other. They spend struggle to determine who is leading the discussion, and what the instructor’s expectations are. One participant offers an example off the top of their head, and the group tries to make it work. They may break off and each tries to find an example, come back, and compare those examples and vote on the best to present.|
|Modification||Find five examples of applications of the concept “x”, then rank and explain their effectiveness.||Rather than determine a leader from the beginning, participants immediately start looking for examples — each deciding on their own what the expectations are. After finding and analyzing several examples each, they select their best choice and bring it back to the group. They each explain their example and realize that different group members used different approaches and expectations. They learn from each other’s perspectives while debating and negotiating the group’s ranking.|
|Redefinition||Share a video clip of the concept of “x” in popular culture, and explain the elements demonstrated in the clip.||Again, participants immediately start looking for examples. In addition to finding examples they think the instructor will like, because of the “popular culture” phrase they factor into their analysis what they think their group members will like, and find examples that also portray their own likes/dislikes in a positive light (this generally requires analyzing many more examples). They return to the group with a personal example, share with each other, and negotiate one that best shows the group identity (thus building group cohesion, trust, and identity) to share with the rest of the class.|
Humanize your forums
Studying the challenges posed in the asynchronous online discussion,Murray (2004) and Baker (2011) question how online discussions can better reflect the face-to-face dynamics of the classroom. The text-centric nature of the asynchronous discussion, they note, raises the following concerns:
|Lack of visual connections (including silent responses), body language, and gestures||Require profile pictures to append human faces to ideas, encourage students to post audio or video messages, allow “liking"|
|Inability for self-correction||Allow students to edit and delete their own posts|
|Ease of identifying or following a discussion matching students’ interests||Allow students to create their own discussion threads|
|>Lack of social cues such as turn-taking in a conversation, brevity, single-user dominated discussions||McFerrin and Christensen (2013) discuss the utility of a community-generated code of conduct|