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Why use the discussion tool?

There is one thing in e-learning that I often find is underutilized, or occasionally, never utilized. I am speaking of the discussion tool. I have had students tell me that they do not value it because it may not explicitly grade for marks. I certainly understand this point. Students are concerned with their marks, and they are striving for university and college acceptance.

The challenge, as I see it, is to find a way to make discussion posts an important aspect of assessment. I’m suggesting that we need to make discussion posts part of the assessment, but they do not need to be the assessment. Students want to know that their discussion links in some way to their summative assessment–the all-important final mark.

This is where my mind is heading right now in e-learning. As a teacher, I find discussion so valuable because the posts allow me to share information,  my views on subject matter, my interests and likes, and my personal experiences with students. Online students need to know who this “creature” is on the other end. E-learning has to be more than just a passive experience for the student, so I personally endeavor to make my e-class a place where I build trust with students and show them that I am working with them. The discussion tool builds this all-important rapport between student and teacher. In discussions, I often try to ask students questions in response to their points, or I share my views in order to challenge their thinking. I want students to reflect, offer insight, be challenged, and challenge me in return.

The potential for this approach in e-learning is obvious. Many students in bricks and mortar classrooms are uneasy when they are required to communicate and are working among their peers. They do not like speaking in public, and that is understandable, given the various pressures young people experience. BUT, these same students deserve a secure place in which to share their insights and thoughts. This may be one reason why you found VHS. I hope educators continue to find ways to make the discussion area valuable and relevant to students in the e-learning world.  I continually seek out ways I can make my discussions more valuable and reflective of the learning occurring in the virtual classroom.


jcummingsJeff Cummings is a teacher at Virtual High School in our Social Sciences & Humanities department as well as our Canadian and World Studies department. Mr. Cummings is passionate about online learning as is evident in his dedication and support for his students. He enjoys being able to provide students across the world with the flexibility they need to achieve their learning goals.

  • Edward Sommerville

    At the last VHS PD Day I recall taking part in a discussion on the topic of Jeff’s PA piece above at which all those involved agreed that the role of the Discussion Tool in Social Science, Humanities and Arts courses ought to be enhanced. So obviously I agree with most of the points Jeff makes. But not quite all. I am all for leavening the communication with students with relevant observations about things above and beyond the discussion topic. But I, for one, am wary of the idealism about student-teacher interaction (especially online) that I see reflected here. Let’s by all means ( and this can and is done through feedback on assignments and tests as well) encourage students and teachers to engage in intellectual discourse. But does it really need to involve revelations to “Online students …about… who this “creature” is on the other end.”

    • Jeff Cummings

      Thanks Ed! I appreciate the feedback and responses. I totally understand your point. I think I personally begin with the focus on knowing my student as a basic beginning place. I do not like the approach of just being a passive entity on the other end, so I feel it is valuable to find ways to interact. That being said, I also understand that some students are online because they want a learning experience that is more private and internal. I appreciate your perspective, as always!