It used to be that the only way to participate in a class discussion was to raise your hand and speak publicly, asking a question or offering an opinion. The advent and increasing popularity of online degree programs has reinvented that format.
Students now communicate with peers and professors through email, online discussion boards and topic-specific course forums, perhaps only coming face-to-face on graduation day. These types of discussions and virtual interaction can enhance the educational process for students who pay attention, participate and follow some simple guidelines.
- Read directions: Jody Thrash, Class of 2015, earned her MBA in Project Management 100% online from Florida Tech. Her biggest advice regarding the online discussion board is “to familiarize yourself with the requirements – know when, what and how much you are expected to post each week.” Online courses include specific instructions from professors as to what is expected from students, including the required length for responses. Students who write too long can lose valuable points toward a final grade.
- Support your opinions: When offering an opinion in an online forum, students should support their position with valid facts from an identified source. That way, students responding to a particular position can cite the source in their rebuttal. Vincent Osborne, another member of Florida Tech’s Class of 2015, advises students not to be afraid to “offer a different point of view or constructive criticism to another student’s post.” Individual perspectives are invaluable to the discussion process.
- Start early: Osborne, who graduated with a BS in Computer Information Systems, also advises students to “prepare, prepare, prepare.” Reading the required material in advance is essential. If you have a question for the professor, don’t wait until the day the discussion board assignment is due. In addition, students who contribute to online discussions early, rather than waiting for a specific deadline, may be rewarded with a richer and more thought-provoking exchange. Florida Tech online instructor Jarin Eisenberg says that “the medium through which the education is delivered does not change a basic principle: as a student you must be prepared and proactive.”
- Ask questions: Online students must work to overcome the informality of a computer screen and initiate communication with an instructor or peer if they don’t understand an assignment.
- Be careful with texts: Much of how we communicate online, particularly in social media, is more casual than the standards of the professional world. Although being friendly to your classmates and professors is a good thing in an online forum, maintaining decorum is also important. Students should avoid using common abbreviations found in text messages, tweets and Facebook posts. Professors expect students to communicate as if in a business environment, Eisenberg says. The use of abbreviations, emoticons and other truncated forms of communication may alienate and confound some students, so stick with complete sentences that are properly punctuated and spell-checked for accuracy.
- Don’t overdo it: Students should edit themselves to avoid dominating an online discussion or drawing it out unnecessarily. Responses should be succinct and relevant to the issue being discussed.
- Tone it down: It also is important to be cognizant of how your words might be construed on a screen compared with in-person. Online communication lacks the context that is conveyed by tone, voice and body language. Think before you type and pause before you post.
- Recognize diversity: Another potential pitfall in an online forum is the failure to recognize and respect diversity. After all, students from across the United States and around the world may be participating in a virtual discussion board. Be mindful and avoid using profane, discriminatory or religious commentary that could offend and alienate classmates and instructors.
- Avoid arguments: In the same sense, students should avoid confrontational statements and not allow themselves to be drawn into heated back-and-forth arguments.
- Incorporate outside resources: Online discussion forums can help students expand their knowledge of a particular topic by making them think outside the box and conduct independent research. Thrash, the MBA grad, advises tapping into Florida Tech’s online library for resources such as peer-reviewed journals, magazine articles and books. “Knowing how to access, cite and utilize this tool is of the utmost importance,” she says.
Often, discussion topics relate to current events or to students’ personal life experiences. When relevant, incorporating such sources into a response can generate additional discussion. Osborne says that outside resources are “invaluable for providing differentiated perspectives one may not necessarily see from just reading the text.”