Enriching Your Distanced Classroom Discussions

Enriching Your Distanced Classroom Discussions

By the OER Project Team

This blog series, crafted by online learning specialist Ian Usher, began in March 2020, when COVID-19 prompted the shut-down of in-person learning across the United States. This is the seventh blog in an eight-part series. You can find the rest of the series in our Teaching at a Distance Center.

What does—or did—class-focused discussion between students look and feel like in your physical classroom? Whatever grade you are teaching, can you recall an instance when students surprised you, and maybe themselves, with depth and maturity in how they answered something, or responded to someone else, or questioned what was being proposed in a class? Hold that thought and those memories, as we’ll touch on them again in a moment....

That richness—that mature-beyond-whatever-their-years-are response and the associated improvement of skills and confidence—is something to cherish and strive for, no matter who you are teaching. However, in our current environment, where students aren’t present—and, to some extent, neither are you as their teacher and guide—can that maturity and thoughtfulness be encouraged? If it can, how can that happen?

There might be some clues in a number of articles and reports coming out in all of the reflections going on in school systems across the globe. Balance is everything of course. There are many articles explaining why students can’t make it to your synchronous class meeting, but there is a more nuanced picture. Some students appear to thrive away from the classroom, and it might be that these are the ones who are likely not to “show up” in face-to-face classroom discussions.

Think back to the zenith of your history of in-class interactions. Was it a few gifted students who predictably shone—or did an unexpected source of wisdom, knowledge and insight come from a student who’d barely contributed before?

“The online environment may allow for voices to be heard without the added bit of social anxiety,” explained Blake Harvard, a psychology teacher in Madison, Alabama.

Think back, to your most recent or first synchronous class meeting post-COVID-19 (if you’ve already done one). Was it a similar dynamic to your physical classroom? The same leaders, the same followers, the same students taking more attention from yourself and others in the class? As mentioned in previous weeks, in a synchronous environment crowd-control may be a hurdle so challenging to get over that we can struggle to encourage (or even recognise) anything more substantial, any higher-order thinking or witness any thoughtful responses.

In contrast, the relaxed, long-form asynchronous discussions might seem like a luxury for some schools—those well-resourced schools with engaged students and a 1-to-1 device program and high teacher numbers and world-class technical support and, and…

Well, let’s take a break and think of some simple techniques to try and get the most out of our discussions—both synchronous and asynchronous—regardless of our teaching context.

Enriching synchronous discussions

First of all, know your tool. Read back to a couple of weeks ago if you want some starting points on this. Practice with your colleagues. Know how to break and fix the controls of the space you’ll be using.

Have some agreed classroom norms—language, what’s shown on camera (and if the cameras are on at all), focus…

So, how can we make our discussions “richer”? Well, we need to get something worth discussing first. Imagine putting most of your class on the spot in a synchronous fashion—either online or in a Google Hangouts room—with a substantive and thought-provoking question on something you’re all looking at together. Would you get rich, considered opinions, or rabbit-in-the-headlights responses? Well, of course that will depend on your class—you know them, so it’s a judgement call for you—but there are simple ways to use other tools to make the synchronous experience richer.

Give time, space, and form for prompts. If you’re discussing a book or text, you could use the announcements section of your Google Classroom to let students know that in next week’s Hangout, you’re going to ask them for five sentences (you can of course choose the length of contribution) from a particular viewpoint, or for or against a statement. They have time to research, to edit, even to rehearse their delivery, and know that others are going to be doing the same. Also let them know that they’ll be asking others to justify why they hold that view of a character in the text—you’re preparing the ground, setting expectations and might even start by leading the questions. Are you assessing this—all of it or just their opening statements? It’s your call, but preparation and time are vital here.

In this case we’ve used an asynchronous tool to better prepare students—both the whole class and individually—for a synchronous class. Picture your next 45-60 minute synchronous class with your students. Decide how you might help smooth out the bumps in the road which might trip them up if put on the spot. Think about how you’re going to use your asynchronous tools—announcements, email, posts in your Classroom stream—to help them feel confident. Think about how else you might do this to ensure that the 45 minutes you have with your class are as rich as can be.

Effective asynchronous discussions

By definition, asynchronous discussions are at a different pace, if they are at any pace at all. Take a look back at last week for some more detail, but there are a few key things to get right.

  • Set a time limit or frame—focus the discussion, and ensure that, where possible, students are thinking about and addressing the same issue, the same historical event, the same character in your text.
  • Be explicit about any guidance and framework you might have—and be aware that in the first few iterations of discussion within a class, this will be a key part of scaffolding to ensure that thinking and discussion is constructed in a helpful way.
  • You don’t have to assess contributions straightaway, but once you begin to, a simple rubric might be built on your earlier framework and guidance. A five-point rubric might include:
    • Managing to post something.
    • Acknowledgement of the post you are responding to
    • Giving your own thoughts/opinions
    • Providing some evidence to back up your thinking
    • Posing another question/idea before signing off
  • If your class needs structure and would benefit from different “channels”, then either break it into groups (4-6 students per group can work well, but experiment to find out what works for your students) and discuss the same topic within parallel groups and then share, or give each group a different topic. This can be done asynchronously through smaller group discussion forums, or you can share multiple Google Hangout Links with your students so they can participate in synchronous breakout rooms—consider providing a doc with small group participants and their “room” links so going in and out of rooms is as seamless as possible.

We’ve regularly touched on how taking part in a synchronous class may be challenging for some students, possibly even those who might benefit most from it. Asynchronous discussion has a number of positives which can make online engagement more accessible for a number of students:

  • contributions can be edited on a device without Internet access and then added when connectivity is available
  • editing, reflection and redrafting can help provide a more substantial answer than the cut and thrust (and limited time) of a synchronous environment.

Enrichment through an asynchronous-synchronous loop

If you haven’t already, take a look at a video from a school in the north of England (closed-captioning is available if Cumbrian accents aren’t your natural dialect). Filmed in 2007, it explores how an asynchronous discussion on a virtual learning environment can inform the synchronous discussion in a physical classroom. The teacher is clearly thoughtful about how each of the synchronous and the asynchronous elements are feeding back into the other—both in how his teaching and his students’ learning is impacted.

Bear in mind that this was filmed thirteen years ago, so the comments about how students communicate outside the classroom are magnified now. As you reflect on the video consider some of the questions below and how you might like to apply them to your own context:

  • Would you describe the two environments (classroom vs virtual learning environment) as significantly different in:
    • Content?
    • Accessibility?
    • Pace?
    • Value to students?
    • Value to teachers?
  • What would each environment (classroom and online) lose without the presence of the other?
  • Do both need implementing at the same time, or can one arise from the other?
  • How might this work in your students’ current home room schooling?

It may be that the most effective use of both synchronous discussion—in a classroom or online—and online asynchronous discussion could be as complementary strategies to one another.

What does “rich classroom discussion” look like in your mind’s eye? Does it look like a version of Chris Carter’s classroom in the video?

Ready to read on? The final episode of Ian's Teaching at a Distance series awaits!

About the author: Ian Usher is Head of Learning Innovation at Herts for Learning, the UK’s largest school-owned company, and a school governor in his home county of West Sussex. He advises schools on implementing learning technology appropriate to their circumstances and has been named an Adobe Education Leader for his work in school-focused e-learning. He plays the guitar badly and remains convinced that stand-up paddleboarding on the ocean is one of the most rewarding ways to socially isolate.