TonyReeves This is a guest post by Tony J. Reeves. It was originally posted on Tony’s blog on June 3, 2014. Tony is the Program Manager in Digital Pedagogy, and a Learning Technologist at the University for the Creative Arts (UCA) in Farnham, the United Kingdom. In the following article, Tony offers his opinions on the merits of online discussion, and also offers suggestions for effective implementation in university classrooms.

Why is online discussion useful? Creating opportunities for online discussion is an effective way of supporting students’ language skills. Online discussion supports learning by:

– Increasing opportunities for students to read and write about their subjects
– Making it easier for less confident students to contribute to class discussion
– Fostering supportive relationships and a sense of community amongst students

The majority of first-year college students have grown up with online communication via social networking sites. Many expect that their university learning experience will incorporate these technologies. Still, many instructors are reluctant to include online discussions in their teaching, but there are many ways of doing so.

Here are some examples of how you might introduce online discussion:

1) Create a class blog and post a weekly discussion question

Setting up a class blog is quick and easy, and it can be a powerful way of stimulating discussion with a new group of students. The Postgraduate course at UCA Farnham used a class blog to encourage less confident students to connect with peers in their the course. After the first lesson, for homework students were asked to upload a link to one of their favorite songs on the class blog, and to write a few sentences about why they chose it. The instructor also shared a link to one of her favorite songs. This activity was a great ice-breaker as it enabled students to share their musical interests in a creative fashion, and also encouraged them to engage with classmates with different musical preferences.

Students who are sometimes too shy to contribute to class discussion often prefer online discussion as they have time to think about what they want to say before sharing it with a group. In addition, providing students with the ability to converse with each other online can foster a sense of community within a cohort. In “4 Reasons to Build an Online Learning Community,” I outline several other benefits of online social learning , such as its capacity to help students adjust to university life, to increase peer supported learning, to enable instructors to quickly gauge student understanding and engagement, and to encourage students to develop digital literacy skills advantageous to professional employment.

2) Use Twitter to encourage communication and collaboration

Despite Twitter’s many users, many instructors are still unaware of its potential to enhance learning and discussion. At UCA, several instructors have created course Twitter accounts, which they use for sending messages and for and sharing links with their students.

Here are some more tips for using Twitter in the classroom:

60 inspiring examples of Twitter in the classroom
50 ways to use Twitter in the classroom
Using Twitter for teaching and research

Above all, it is important that instructors clarify how online discussion will support student learning. Simply asking students to share their thoughts and ideas on a blog is unlikely to work unless they can clearly see the reasons for doing so. It’s also important that instructors are prepared to participate in the online discussion. Their presence and moderation is as important online as it is in the physical classroom.