Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Discussion activity templates

In our rush to  promote knowledge and understanding of dynamic, creative and engaging internet-based technologies within formal education, it's easy to lose sight of the importance of core text-based interaction tools like discussions or forums.  Such communication channels can be a really good way of eliciting a reflective dialogue when setup and facilitated effectively.  The key point is that the asynchronicity allows for reflection and considered articulation of your thoughts (something I've reflected on in Asynchronous = Time and space learning , The difference between asynchronous and synchronous learning activities and The learning cycle and the power of asynchronous learning activities ).  For me, the process of rearranging and retyping words in a forum post is as close to a manifestation of the learning process as you can get.  Your knowledge and understanding is being refined and crystallised based on the thoughts of other learner's. In addition, you are presenting your position and making a conscious effort to get your point across.  In addition, regular engagement in text-based learning activities have a really positive effect on developing a learner's written articulation skills.

I work in UK Higher Education where its rare for courses to make use of learning technologies not to design in some discussion based learning activities.  A common technique for those involved in helping educators design such activities is to use representations of practice.  This could include case studies, or pedagogical templates.  Quite often, learning technologies come up with their own and I am no different.  I try to use representations which have pedagogical rigour but are also easily digestable.  The level of abstraction needs to be somewhere between being too abstract for easy application and too specific to be adaptable.  Also, a consideration for easy digestion is the length of the representation.  Basically, its not good to be too long.
Below are a set of representations that can be used for any online discussion tool.  Each box represents example wording that can be adapted for use within any learning activity using this tool.  You will notice that there is lots of process support in each wording.  This covers how the learners should engage with the activity and explaining how the tutor/facilitator will engage.  Such process support is a vital part of the design of online learning activities and often overlooked.

Ideally I use these activity wordings as part of learning design consultation.  It helps educators new to e-learning visualise how such activities could work.  It also highlight the different types of discussion you can have.  I've grouped the wordings within a scaffolded learning process - it happens to be Salmon one but I could have used others.  The point of this is to show how discussions can be used at different stages of a scaffolded learning process.  What's interesting is that other tools like wikis are more suitable for later stages in the learning process whereas the discussion tool is a versatile and can be used within lots of different contexts. 

I hope you find these useful.

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