The ideas “online” and “discussion” seems an oxymoron to many, that engagement in discussion can occur with participants removed in time and place.
How to facilitate such discussions is confusing to many teachers, and online discussion threads and chatrooms may be seen as a poor substitute for the “real” thing, an evil necessity of the online class. However, although there are some barriers such as its more decontextualized nature, in comparison to face-to-face discussion, there are advantages that are unique to the online discussion that can be built on by the instructor while the drawbacks are minimized.
7 Advantages of Online Discussion
Online discussions generally can be set for a time convenient for everyone. And you do not need to leave your home! In a “real” onsite classroom, students can arrive so tired from work, anxious from the commute to the classroom, worried about their home situation, and so forth, that instruction becomes impeded as the instructor tries to lower students’ anxiety levels and get them focused on the class, which can eat up half a class session, sometimes. In an online class, students do not have to commute and the class is being taken according to their own schedules, generally, so students can then focus more on instruction.
Because of the convenience, student, again, are less distracted, tired, and stressed. Therefore, they are able to focus on the topic. Usually, after some very cursory greetings, the instructor can dive right into the course content and spend a full hour discussing it with students without distractions such as bathroom breaks, sharpening pencils, eating, etc. Much more content then is typically covered than in a face-to-face classroom. Small talk and off-topic talk is also minimalized.
More in Depth
More focus leads naturally to more depth. Also with asynchronous discussion threads, especially—that is, threads on which students post at different times—there is time for more serious consideration of the topic. A topic such as “What do you think about the novel’s protagonist? Is he a sociopath? Why or why not?” can be posted on a discussion thread, and students can go on for paragraphs of developing their ideas without getting bored, losing track of their trains of thought, getting distracted by noises from the other classroom, being interrupted, etc. In live chat, if someone really needs to leave the chatroom due to something going on in their “live” environment, they can do so with minimal or no disruption to the rest of the class.
More Introverted Students Participate More
The research shows that introverted students may actually perform better in online discussions because they are allowed more time needed to reflect on comments than is allowed in face-to-face communications. Extroverted students who tend to dominate the discussion in face-to-face classrooms are not necessarily the most insightful; online discussions can somewhat equalize the contributions and participation.
More Diverse Perspectives
I have been in online chats with students from Sweden, Portugal, Taiwan, Canada, the United States, and New Zealand—sometimes in one session. We naturally bring different perspectives to a topic and different information, different understandings of family relationships and responsibilities, for example. In a traditional classroom and discussion, by the nature of the school being located in a specific place, the discussion participants live in that location and may have in fact grown up together or be related, if the community is small, so differing perspectives are less possible.
Increased Ability to Limit Remarks That Aren’t Constructive
Not all contributions to a discussion are constructive or even welcome. Some students are obstructive to the process, and deliberately engage in behavior such as making off-topic, cynical, or otherwise inappropriate remarks. Such students, perhaps only one per class, in a traditional classroom, take up excessive amount of an instructor’s attention in attempting to guide the discussion on the topic. In an online chat, however, the instructor can always claim not to even have seen the student’s inappropriate contributions (there is “lag time” in an online chat, sometimes several minutes between typing and the text appearing.) This can act as an “extinguishing” strategy (e.g., behavior that is ignored is “extinguished).
More Readily Available Resources
Most instructors know the feeling of students not understanding what seems to them a relatively simple concept or reference because of cultural or generational differences. It may be something simple, such as what a unicorn is or the more complex, such as what the artist Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” looks like. In a traditional classroom, especially for one that is not “smart,” with online resources, unless the instructor has anticipated the gap in understanding—not always possible—she will be reduced often to drawing pictures on the board or verbal explanations, both of which might further confuse students. In an online discussion, the instructor has the option of going to the Web immediately, searching “unicorn” or “Birth of Venus,” and posting the link or the image itself in the discussion room. Another advantage is being able to view student work; in online chats I’ve been able to immediately view students’ work that was just emailed or uploaded and make some quick comments. This is not possible in a traditional classroom if the student has left the paper at home. The work may be further shared, with student approval, with the rest of the class for discussion by posting it in the chatroom.
The online discussion, because of decreased context, can seem a poor substitute for the “real” discussion of traditional classrooms. Class participants are not, after all, even in the same time zone, often, and are separated by at times thousands of miles. We often can’t see each other’s facial expressions or hear each other’s voices. However, the convenience, focus, reflection, and resources available in an online discussion more than make up for the disadvantages.