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3 Tips for Handling Discussions in Online Courses

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I’ve been teaching a large online class for the first time this semester, and as the course involves looking at a number of challenge interactive works and games I put a lot of emphasis on discussion forums and critical debate. However, discussion forums of this kind present a lot of potential problems in an online class. We only have to read the comments anywhere on the web (pro tip: don’t actually read the comments) to see that the online medium offers huge potential for miscommunication, personal attacks, trolling, and harassment–even when in the space of a virtual classroom.

Obviously, disruptive students aren’t unique to online discussions (Billie Hara profiled several types of classroom challenges previously), but managing an online discussion poses a very different challenge for a professor. I read everything posted on course discussion forums by my 130 students, but I can’t do it in real time: it’s often several days or a full week later by my review. At that point, if a student has made an inappropriate remark or worse an outright attack on a student, it’s too late to interrupt or handle the problem in real-time the way I would in a classroom. This means I’ll often come across something in grading that I would never have let pass in a traditional class, and I have to determine what to do after the fact. Many online venues (including this one) use moderation of comments and discussion to stop problems early on. That can significantly slow down an online course, particularly when there are no assigned moderators.

Here are the strategies I’ve been employing so far to address these concerns in my class:

  • Have a clear policy for communication – and explain it upfront. While most universities have codes of conduct and other policies that offer syllabus boilerplate, a tailored policy for an online class can address some potential problems before they arise. As not everyone reads the syllabus, I mentioned the policy in the course’s opening  video and the materials for the first module. The Geek Feminism Code of Conduct is a great example of a clear policy regarding expected behaviors.

  • Watch for (and highlight) early problems. Relatively low risk discussions  can be a good place to spot the signs of future personal attacks. I asked students to critique and respond to external works before our first peer review, and noted when students tended towards insulting the author or made blanket statements attacking content or ideas in the work. This gives students a chance to rethink their participation before critiquing the personal work of other students in the class, which is a much higher-stakes discussion.

  • Isolate disruptive students. Forums rely on moderators and banning users for a reason: even if those users will often find their way back through different accounts, removing them from the discourse can allow the rest of conversation to flow. While all students need to be able to participate in an online class, a disruptive student (particularly when identified through another students’ complaint or an incident of harassment) can be easily placed into a private discussion group–an option not so readily available in a face-to-face classroom.

Topics with any level of controversy present a particular challenge: as I am teaching students about digital culture and video games, issues of race, gender, class, and personal identity are inevitably at stake in my courses. With discussions of the political and social responsibility of universities fueling their own flame wars on the internet, this is an important time to be conscious of whether our online spaces can serve as inclusive opportunities for critical discussion.

Do you have any strategies for handling moderation in online course discussions? Share them in the comments!

[CC 2.0 Photo "Combustion" by Emilio Küffer]

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