Keeping the conversation going online
In fact, clear guidance and course structures are crucial. Without a good sense of what they should do, students may indeed fall into simple, almost reflexive response behaviors that often characterize their Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or texting communications. But with guidance about what is expected in this course, students will have incredible conversations in writing. My advice: In your course materials be clear and specific about what you want them to do, and make sure the course structure (and your own writing behaviors) support these goals. For instance:
1) Differentiate and define post types. Create different types of posts and define them clearly. If you call a post a "primary," "response," or "secondary" post, students will understand better its role in the overall conversation.
2) Length. This may be a simple criterion, but it's effective. For instance, I ask that "primary" posts be about 150 words and what I call "secondary" posts be 75. It's rare that their posts are even that short, and they are almost never shorter. Why? Because the expectations are clear about length.
3) Evaluation criteria. First off, create rubrics/evaluation guidelines for posts (I have some guidelines here). Then, overtly include in those materials that you want to see conversation.
4) Moderators. Use moderators to build conversation. (I discussed this a few years ago in this post.) These students can be invaluable in defining and promoting conversation. I recommend that you provide a small grade for moderating, which becomes another low-stakes way of building conversation.
5) Model conversation yourself. How are students supposed to know how to build a message board conversation if the teacher himself merely replies with one-word answers? You don't and shouldn't respond to everything, but you should model good dialogue.
6) Work from mid-week "progress/summary" posts. On your threads, mid-way through a week-long conversation, write a post summarizing where the conversation is and build from there, providing them with a fresh direction.
7) Multiple posting deadlines. Use multiple posting deadlines during the week, which helps create conversation by encouraging students to avoid procrastination; you won't get bunched-up posts at the end of the week. So have one deadline, say Wednesday, for primary posts, and have a second deadline, say Friday, for secondary/response posts. The staggered deadlines create opportunity for reflection and subsequent conversation.
8) Grading. Some teachers don't want to grade discussions. I get that. But I must say that a low-stakes grading strategy can be a great way to encourage your students to build dialogue (I'm feeling very self-promotional in my links this time, but here's a link about low-stakes grading). They can be accountable for participation online in ways that I think make a lot of solid, pedagogical sense to everyone. The key, again, is that the grades are low stakes and that the criteria are transparent.
So what if despite it all, they don't talk to each other much? Well, I never give up, but at some point they have to work with you, whether in a brick-and-mortar classroom or online. Only once have I had a really reticent f2f course. I tried everything in my teaching toolbox, but at the end of the term I realized I never quite got them to work with each other. This is no different online: Do your best to build conversation, while understanding the ultimate outcome, good or bad, is not always about what you did.
That being said, one thing I want to emphasize is that if you want conversational posting behavior but aren't getting it, change what you're doing. I always find the written conversations on message boards to be incredibly rich and full of teachable moments. I think we owe it to our students to create that kind of learning environment in our courses.