Virtual/digital classrooms provide an excellent medium for hosting such discussions. Many of these digital classrooms provide the discussion forum tool that allow students to join and post their opinion on topics and questions posed by the teacher. There is great benefit to this. Students do not always have their thoughts organized enough in class to be able to speak about a topic. Many students require much more time to gather their opinions and ideas before speaking out to their peers. Many students would rather write down these thoughts on paper first before speaking out. A useful strategy is to host daily or regular discussion forum for students who can leave the classroom and then respond to the question online.
My experience with this strategy has been positive, as I have found students who don't usually respond in class, responding much more online. In classes I have taught in the past, I have posted questions to the students at the beginning of the class, and have revisited the question at the end of the class. However, I have found that the same students are the ones responding, and the voices of the majority are not heard. Whereas hosting an online discussion forum has brought many new voices and thus opinions into the discussion, and the results have been great! However, there are a few things to remember with this.
- Be regular. Schedule this strategy into your weekly plans. I wouldn't suggest doing this everyday, as setting the bar that high may mean ultimate failure; but twice or three times a week would keep your students connected to the routine.
- Make it meaningful. Students typically do not do work just for the sake of it. You as the teacher have to use this strategy as an assessment. However, I would suggest that you look to assess students responses on a weekly basis rather than each and every discussion. Not every discussion requires a response from every student, but I would say that responding at least once a week in a meaningful way can, and should, contribute to the students' overall grade.
- Respond in kind. Having students respond to a question and each other is great, and students typically like to hear what their peers have to say. But you as well need to respond. Showing your students that you are paying attention to their opinions is easy to do in class, and necessary, and therefore online should be no different. Follow-up with your students and pose new questions. Critique their responses and approve their opinions. Showing any interest whatsoever will keep students coming back for more, and will lead to continued valuable discussions.
- Switch it up. Rather than always looking to illicit responses from students on questions posed, frequently change the task. Have students look for articles, websites, blogs, etc. connected to the topic and have them provide a response to these. Have them post their own questions and generate their own discussions. Have students take the discussion to Twitter rather than the usual discussion board. Whatever you do, don't remain stagnant. Just like we need to switch up our activities in the classroom, we need to also switch up our activities online, and discussions are no different.
- Have fun. The last thing you want to do is make the task mundane. Obviously not every discussion can be fun, and not every student will find it interesting, but you as the teacher can attempt to make things a little more enjoyable. Why not simply hold a discussion about a school event, popular culture, or the latest youtube sensation. It doesn't always have to be curriculum related, and you may find that the conversation does begin to connect to your course once the conversation gets going.