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Online Discussions

Seaver students seated in a circle, looking at a male peer in a gray hoodie raising his hand

Teaching by discussion goes back thousands of years. Socrates, of course, is associated with a particular question-and-answer structure for discussions, but many variations are possible. The common thread in all varieties is "a productive exchange of viewpoints, a collective exploration of issues" (Nilson, 2016). Many Seaver College classes can be characterized as whole-group discussions or seminars, while many larger classes employ small groups. Some faculty members employ more complex discussion structures (for some examples, see chapters 2–3 of Major, Harris, and Zakrajsek, 2016), but this page will focus on those two basic discussion types.


 Synchronous Online Whole-Group Discussions

Since 2010 (when FaceTime debuted on the iPhone), synchronous online discussions have become more and more commonplace. At Pepperdine, Zoom is the tools most commonly used to host synchronous online discussions, and the tips given in this webpage assume you are using Zoom, but may be applicable to other platforms like Google Meet as well. Technologies added to Seaver College classrooms in Summer 2020 enable faculty members to conduct synchronous discussions that include both onsite and online students.

Whether your discussion class is fully online or includes both online students and those who have physically gathered in a classroom, please take the following pedagogical considerations into account:

  • Online meetings inherently impose a heavier cognitive load than in-person meetings, just because you and your students will need to operate Zoom. Therefore, you might not be able to accomplish as much in an online discussion as you could in an onsite discussion of the same duration. Don't let this surprise or discourage you; adjust your expectations and practices accordingly.
  • Students' webcams will capture not just students' faces, but also their environments. To mitigate both privacy concerns and visual distractions (which place extra cognitive load on viewers and thereby contribute to Zoom fatigue), consider asking students to use the virtual backgrounds feature in Zoom with a bland background not unlike classroom walls, such as a beige stucco wall. You could also ask students to turn off their video and just participate audibly, like in an old-style teleconference, but you might feel that losing access to students' nonverbal cues is too costly.
  • Students may already have a tendency to talk over each other in class, and latency (the time between an audiovisual signal entering a system on one end and emerging from the system at the other end) may exacerbate this problem, because it makes it harder to know when another person has finished. To mitigate this, you might wish to incorporate a more formal turn-taking procedure than you would ordinarily use in an onsite class. For example, you might want to ask students to use a standardized audible cue such as "I'm done" or "Who's next?" to indicate that they have finished speaking. Or you might ask students to raise their hands (literally in front of their cameras, or using Zoom's virtual "raise hand" feature), even if you wouldn't ordinarily do this in a physical classroom.
  • Decide ahead of time whether you will allow students to use the text chat feature during discussions. The chat stream can be a significant distraction, so you may wish to simply turn it off, much as you might disallow side conversations during an in-class discussion. You could also set the chat to "Host only," which would allow students to post messages to you during the text chat, but others could not see those messages. For example, you could ask students to send you a chat message that just says "I have something to say" if they're trying unsuccessfully to get into the conversation.

Whether your discussion class is fully online or includes both online students and those who have physically gathered in a classroom, please take the following technological considerations into account, and teach students to do the same:

  • Quit all programs that you don't actually need to access during the meeting itself. If you need to run a web browser during your Zoom session, consider using Brave instead of Chrome.
  • If you're connecting from somewhere off-campus, check your internet speeds at or a similar website. Your download speed should be 20 Mbps (million bits per second) or higher, and your upload speed 10 Mbps or higher. If you fall short of these benchmarks, you are likely to experience choppy performance on your Zoom meeting.
  • If at all possible, use a wired connection instead of a wireless connection.
  • If you're using a University-owned computer, it will be running an internet security program called Sophos. Manually update Sophos (from the shield-shaped icon in your Mac menu bar or Windows system tray) about 15–30 minutes before your class begins, to avoid performance slowdowns during Sophos's automatic updates (which run every three hours).

If you have chosen a Campus Variable (CV) or Mixed Variable (MV) modality for your discussion course, you may find it challenging to conduct discussions that smoothly integrate both onsite and online students. Doing so requires you to think about things you don't normally think about during class — chiefly, operating Zoom. The technological affordances in our classrooms offer significantly more benefits for lecturers than for discussion leaders. Nevertheless, the following tips may be helpful.

  • In order to use the classroom's camera and microphone, you must use the computer permanently assigned to the classroom. You can't connect your own laptop or tablet to the classroom's camera and microphone.
  • The classroom's camera has a limited field of view. You'll need to stay within certain designated parts of the classroom to remain visible to online students. (In Fall 2020, your field of motion will generally be more constrained by COVID-19 mitigation protocols than by the camera's field of view.)
  • To help onsite students and online students feel more like a single, unified class than like a class with outside observers, ask students in the classroom to log in to the Zoom meeting with their video on and their microphones and speakers muted, so that online students can see the onsite students' faces and vice versa.
  • If you would normally project an image or text to serve as a focal point for discussion, you'll be better served by doing that through Zoom's screen-sharing feature rather than projecting it on the in-room screen for the in-room camera to transmit to online students. The same applies for texts you might otherwise write or diagrams you might otherwise draw on a whiteboard. The cameras do have pan and zoom controls that would allow you to focus on an in-room whiteboard, but manipulating those controls will require time and mental energy.
  • Students connecting to your discussion via Zoom may have difficulty hearing students in the classroom when they speak. In a small room, if your in-class students speak clearly, your lavalier microphone may pick up their contributions with sufficient clarity. In a large room, this becomes much less likely. As of late summer 2020, Seaver College has no solution to this problem; the smoothest workaround, for now, is to have all students participate online from diverse locations. If you are strongly committed to meeting with some students in the classroom while others join the discussion remotely, you may need to appoint one in-class student as a kind of liaison between the online students and the onsite students. That student could use the chat stream to summarize in-class comments for online students who could not hear those comments. Admittedly, this is a lot to ask, so if you are grading class participation, serving in this liaison role should count as the student's class participation for that day. You might wish to rotate this role among all of the in-class students, session by session, so that no one student shoulders the entire burden.

 Synchronous Online Small-Group Discussions

Please note that the guidance below presupposes the guidance given in the whole-group discussion section, and focuses only on the considerations unique to small groups.

Small group work in a Zoom session is facilitated by the Breakout Rooms feature. You can let Zoom populate the breakout rooms randomly, or you can send specific students into specific rooms. You can even set up the groups before the meeting begins. Please note the following special features of breakout rooms:

  • Breakout rooms are not recorded, even if you're recording the main session.
  • If you have enabled screen sharing, participants within a breakout room can share their screens. However, the host cannot broadcast a shared screen to all breakout rooms at once. If you would normally project an image or text to serve as a focal point for small group discussion, you'll need to find a workaround. For example, you could put the image or text into a Google Slides deck and share that document with students, and ask one student from each group to share that slide inside the breakout room.
  • You can broadcast messages into all breakout rooms simultaneously. These messages appear on the screen briefly, and are rather small, so tell your students up front if you intend to use these messages.
  • If the chat feature is enabled, each participant can save a chat of what they could see during the meeting. The main room chat, therefore, will not include the chat streams from breakout rooms, but if individual students save their own chats, those files will include the chats from their own breakout rooms (but not other breakout rooms).
  • As the meeting host, you can enter or leave any breakout room at any time. Other participants can leave a breakout room at any time and return to the main session, but cannot enter breakout rooms on their own. Only the host(s) can invite participants into breakout rooms.

If you are teaching a Variable class with some students online and some students in the classroom, the easiest way to handle small group discussions is to avoid blending the two populations. That is, each group would consist only of online students or only of onsite students, not both. If you feel that it is vital for all students to be eligible for all groups, you'll probably get the best results from conducting that particular discussion fully online. Asking students in the classroom to work in groups with online students via Zoom is theoretically possible, but in practice this often results in very unpleasant audio feedback for the participants. All participants would need to wear headphones with dedicated microphones, and would need to keep the headphones' volume low enough that sound from their headphones could not reach other students' microphones.

 Asynchronous Online Discussions

Translating a seminar-style discussion into an asynchronous format can be a bit disorienting, but keeping those conversations going during a campus closure promotes student community as well as student learning. The Forums tool in Courses provides a digital space for these conversations to happen. Sarah Stone Watt recommends the following basic formula for promoting robust online discussions.

  • Begin with some type of course content—typically a reading or video—designed to elicit student response.
  • Require students to make an initial post that responds to that content in some well-defined way. Then, require students to return later to respond to one or more posts by their classmates. Be specific about when students should complete each component. By iterating through this cycle several times with relatively short time between deadlines, you can get a little bit closer to the feel of an in-class discussion.
  • Make your discussion prompts as specific as possible, especially for lower-level courses, but also open-ended.
  • If you would grade the discussion in a face-to-face setting, grade it also in the online setting. In Courses, you can link a Forum to the Gradebook, allowing you to assign grades and leave comments for every participant.
  • Moderate your own participation. Intervene if necessary to keep the discussion going, but be even more patient with silence than you would be in a face-to-face discussion, keeping in mind the asynchronous nature of an online forum. Let the conversation develop between students.
  • Remind your students that an online course forum is an extension of the classroom, and the same expectations of civility and critical thinking apply as when you're face-to-face. You might want to share with your students eLearning Industry's "10 Netiquette Tips for Online Discussions."
  • Consider important differences between online and face-to-face communication, and urge your students to do the same. Tone of voice, body language, and general demeanor translate poorly into text-only communications, so think before you write and encourage your students to do the same. In particular, be aware that countering a student's perspective with an alternative perspective can have a chilling effect on a conversation, so try to allow those alternatives to arise from other students whenever possible.

You can conduct group work using similar principles. Courses supports the creation of groups within a class. You can then give each group its own Forum or other spaces in which to collaborate, differentiate content among groups, and so on. Beyond their educational value, group activities can support class cohesion during periods when students are physically far away from each other.