Learning to Have Collaborative Online Discussions, Part 2

Learners engage in online discussions for a variety of different purposes. Discussion can be used as a warm-up before another learning activity to assess prior knowledge of a subject, for example. Or there may be a brief Q and A session at the end of a presentation that turns into a discussion among vocal members of a class. Then there are intentionally planned, inquiry-based collaborative online discussions that allow a group to consider multiple perspectives and deepen understanding. How can we create such magical moments more consistently?

Highly effective academic conversations like these can stimulate critical thinking, improve reading comprehension, and build communication and social and emotional skills, all while helping students enjoy mastering new material. But if your students are still learning to have these types of collaborative online discussions, don’t worry! With some Shared Inquiry learning supports and a little practice, you and your students will soon be mastering this key 21st-century learning skill.

What Type of Discussions Do You Want to Have?

Because most students have experienced a variety of discussion types and many may never have had in-depth collaborative online discussions, it’s important to start by explaining your goal for the discussion and by clarifying expectations and procedures for the type of discussion you want to have.

Deciding on group norms, or agreements, right from the get-go will give each student a voice and provide accountability for all,” says literacy specialist Rebecca Alber. Well-structured guidelines help get everyone on the same page about what you are doing and why. Here are the guidelines we recommend for Shared Inquiry collaborative online discussions. Of course, you’ll want to create your own version with your group and update it as you learn what works best in your setting.

If your intention is to have a focused, in-depth collaboration that explores complex texts and issues—sometimes called Socratic seminars, grand conversations, or what the Great Books Foundation refers to as Shared Inquiry discussions—we recommend carrying over the key elements and practices from in-person collaboration.

Great Shared Inquiry discussions:

  • Focus on open-ended problems, especially interpretive ones, where more than one answer may be valid based on the shared evidence
  • Explore genuinely complex texts and experiences that raise such questions
  • Require the use of evidence and reasoning to support claims
  • Engage everyone in questioning the text and each other
  • Nurture collaboration with civility and genuine listening

Briefly explaining these elements and then regularly reflecting on them afterward will help each participant better understand the goals of and their role in this type of discussion.

Authentic Listening and Questioning Improves Collaborative Online Discussions

Effective Shared Inquiry discussions nurture collaboration because they both build and are rooted in trust and genuine interest in one another. Help cultivate that authentic interest as a leader by listening closely to what students say. That means sometimes letting them know you were distracted, or the sound cut out, or they were muted. Tell them you really want to hear what they said and to know what they think, so you’ll wait—whatever the reason—and you’ll ask again, and you’ll explain why—because their thoughts matter. Here are more tips for effective online Shared Inquiry discussions.

When we take the time to really listen to one another, we begin to trust that we will be heard. And we model what true collaboration means and show why we want everyone to get better at it. We know we don’t know everything, and we know students have ideas and perspectives worth considering. That’s why the leader in Shared Inquiry is restricted to asking questions only, which then becomes the true art of the master leader.

Asking follow-up questions about others’ words and ideas shows you are listening and helps shape the exploration of those ideas and the problem. Try turning your own reactions into questions rather than praising or judging students’ responses. Those questions invite further conversation, whether you go back to the speaker or ask others whether they can add to the idea or whether they have a different thought. Ask regularly and consistently for evidence, whether you personally agree with the idea or not. And take the time to have everyone find and read the part of the text being offered as evidence. Once everyone is there, be sure to ask for different perspectives and more questions. Now you’ve got that great Shared Inquiry discussion going!

Review part 1 of “Learning to Have Collaborative Online Discussions.”

Watch this space for part 3,
coming soon.