Threaded discussions and Polls

How to Keep Things Interactive in Online Courses

When instructors adhere to the basic principle that students don’t simply acquire understanding, they actively construct it, supporting interactivity in the classroom starts to make a lot of sense. Part of this means engaging students’ interests. But beyond engagement, it also means creating a context for learning that supports the “conditions under which student thinking can be revealed” (National Research Council, 2000, p. 19). In that sense, supporting interactivity means providing opportunities for students to engage with the course content, the teacher, and their peers in ways that make their thinking visible.

There are lots of ways that this kind of interactivity can be supported through online learning environments, many of which I discussed in my previous post about assessment. But here is an easy reference list to get you started with thinking about what might work for your own course:

Threaded discussion. Having your students engage in a threaded discussion can be a great way to get a glimpse into their thinking, particularly if the emphasis is on progressive discussion (continuously working towards improving collective understanding) (Scardamalia, 2002), and not simply on the act of posting notes. This kind of intentional knowledge work can also support metacognition: when the goal is to build on what has already been said, it follows that students will need to pay more deliberate attention to the ideas shared and consider them in relation to their own understanding.

Surveys. I use surveys at the beginning and midpoint of my courses in order to collect information from my students that can help guide instruction. For example, the survey that I invite students to complete during our orientation activities (in my course on Integrating Technology into the Classroom) asks them about things like, their prior experiences with technology, their comfort level with learning how to use new technologies, and whether they have consistent access to a digital device and the Internet during the course. Midway through the course, I circulate another survey to get a sense of how students are feeling about their performance in the course thus far, and to see if they have any questions. In both cases, I use these surveys to inform decisions about things like, instructional pacing, student learning supports, and the types of applications I should be spending more/less class time focusing on. 

Polls. Polls can be a great way to ask questions on the fly (such as during a video conference session), or they can be student-paced and integrated with something like a lecture recording. For example, the instructor could have a lecture pre-recorded but at various points throughout the video encourage students to pause and answer a question. The poll can be set to reveal others’ responses once the student has submitted their own, providing a nice opportunity to reflect on how their answers compared to others. There are also other tools like Nearpod, which can allow instructors to create their slide deck with various kinds of interactives embedded throughout. 

Co-authoring tools. Applications such as Google Docs and digital whiteboards can be a great way to have students work together to share their ideas in a single virtual space. Zoom has a whiteboard built into the application so that instructors can switch between their own slides and then open up a space for students to work together, without having to send them to a separate tool. But instructors can also make use of other applications such as Google Jamboard, to accomplish the same kind of thing, whether the course format is synchronous or asynchronous.

Chats. Live chats can be a nice way to support quick conversations between students, as well as between the students and the instructor. Pepper’s messaging tool is relatively unique in that it can support an asynchronous or synchronous chat. For example, if a message is sent when the recipient is not currently online, Pepper will send them a notification the next time they login to say that there is a message waiting for them. Alternatively, if the recipient of a message is online at the same time as the sender, the message tool becomes a pop-up instant chat window. A chat tool is also available in Zoom, which can support “backchannel” conversations during a presentation, so as not to interrupt the speaker. For example, these backchannels can be a good way to invite students to ask questions while the instructor is lecturing, while keeping the students’ audio muted (to reduce background noise). The instructor can then pause from time to time in order to take up the questions. 

Emoticons/emojis. Visuals like emoticons and emojis can be a good way to support non-verbal communication in online environments. For example, in the Participants panel in Zoom, there are a number of emoticons available for students to express things like agreement (thumbs up), disagreement (thumbs down), enthusiasm (applause), the desire to ask a question or provide a comment (hand raised), and the need to take a break (clock). Pepper also has various emojis available for similar purposes, in addition to the ‘Like’ button which is available at the bottom of all notes.

Small groups. As mentioned in some of my previous blogs, the “breakout rooms” in Zoom are a great way to provide students with an opportunity to work in small groups during a synchronous online class. Instructors can set the group numbers according to the type of discussion they are trying to support. For example, if the instructor wanted to structure something similar to turning to your “elbow partners” in a face-to-face class, the instructor could set up the group numbers in 2s or 3s, and the application will randomly sort the students once the rooms are opened. In Pepper, instructors can set up things like private folders, which limit ‘membership’ (the ability to read and post contents) to particular students. This allows student groups a slightly more intimate setting to work on tasks and assignments together, rather than having that take place in the main public class space.

Accessibility. A truly interactive class is one that fully supports engagement for all students. Therefore, instructors in online courses should consider whether there are aspects of their virtual classroom that are potentially detracting from learning for particular groups of students. For example, if an instructor elects to use lecture screencasts in their courses, ensuring that closed captioning or an audio transcript is available can help students who may be deaf or hard-of hearing, students for whom English is a second language, or students who may benefit from text supports for various other reasons. Providing text-based annotations for important visuals can also benefit students who have low vision, or who are blind. If a student requires access to an interpreter as part of their accommodations for synchronous video conference sessions, tools like Zoom have the option to assign a member to serve as a note-taker to support closed captioning, or instructors can invite the interpreter to join the online class, and then the student can ‘pin’ the interpreter’s window so that it’s consistently available on their screen rather than having the application default to the current speaker window. Being mindful of providing course materials in conversion-ready format is also important. This can include providing students with a .doc version of things like the course syllabus rather than .pdf. The following is a resource to help instructors ensure that their documents are in an accessible format:


National Research Council. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Scardamalia, M. (2002). Collective cognitive responsibility for the advancement of knowledge. In B. Smith & C. Bereiter (Eds.) Liberal Education in a Knowledge Society, 2002 [pp. 67-98]. Chicago, Il: Open Court.

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