“The human voice is the most beautiful instrument of all, but it is the most difficult to play.”
Teachers spend hours preparing learning materials. When this material is presented to students, we want to make sure students make a connection to the material and fully evaluate and consume the material. This means all students must have the opportunity to voice their opinions, perspectives, or ideas about the material. Even if class time is limited, the use of collaborative web tools and apps allows every student in class to contribute their thoughts, questions, and ideas extensively. Real-time online conversations that take place while you are teaching are possible through backchanneling.
Below is a list of free web tools your students can use to carry on a class discussion while you lecture, show a video, or present reading material. This allows you to share your ideas and points about the material and make sure your teacher talk time doesn’t limit your students’ opportunities to exchange ideas and opinions with each other about the material.
Online Class Discussion Tips
Online discussions with peers can be rich and meaningful, because everyone contributes and peers offer feedback to one another. However, online exchanges can also quickly go awry. Students may go off topic, be reluctant to post their opinions, not know how to disagree respectfully, or not have the vocabulary, grammar, or fluency to express themselves comfortably. The following tips will help ensure your online discussions are successful:
As a class establish norms and expectations. Let students know they will participate in an online discussion that is visible to you and peers. Ask them to come up with at least 10 good expectations for ensuring the discussion is successful. All students should feel that their opinions and values were heard and respected. You can compare their list to the expectations outlined in this document. Ask students if they would like to change their norms and expectations with ideas from the document.
Define consequences. Outline consequences if students go off topic, fail to participate, bully, disrespect others, or post something offensive. One consequence (with grade schoolers) should be that you will highlight the inappropriate behavior and send this to their parents. Students should be aware that what they post online is recorded and they will have to take responsibility for the consequences. This is also an important digital citizenship lesson.
Provide examples of how to contribute to the discussion. Show students examples of rich online discussions or do a practice round where you highlight meaningful exchanges or sharing. Let students know they should feel free to ask questions, contribute prior knowledge, share experiences related to the topic, express ideas, share links to articles, share why they agree or disagree and the reason behind their opinions.
Help students feel confident and safe expressing themselves. Don’t grade for grammar or spelling. Do encourage students to do their best. Allow them to use emojis or stickers when they can’t figure out the right word. Also, provide a list of useful phrases and vocabulary words before the chat for students to reference. You might also want to give them a few minutes before the chat to jot down ideas about the topic to share in the discussion. You might also want to provide sentence frames. Here is a PDF full of sentence and question starters to help students frame their ideas. You could print this out or create these as a class poster for students to reference.
Show students how to disagree/agree respectfully. Most students don’t understand how to debate or disagree respectfully. They might see an opinion and react emotionally or heatedly. Students aren’t often exposed to different ideas and may tell another peer they are wrong or cast judgment. We need to prepare our students to listen to opposing views and teach them how to consider them and come up with healthy responses and reactions that spur the conversation instead of stopping the discussion. Help students understand that they learn more from disagreement versus everyone contributing the same beliefs or ideas.
Collaborative Discussion Tools
Now that your students are prepared for their online discussion, introduce them to the web tool they will use. Show them how to register, log on, and create a username. If you are giving a participation grade then you might want to create usernames for your students. Also, introduce students to key features, such as how to specifically reply to someone, use any emojis or stickers, or how to highlight parts of the material and add notes. You might want to direct them to tutorials to learn more about the tool. The following are some web tools your students and you can use for meaningful online class discussions and collaboration.
Backchannel Chat is a very basic backchanneling tool designed with teachers in mind. Teacher scan control all aspects of the online discussion, such as removing messages, preventing posts, or managing the pace of the discussion to allow time for students to respond. You can provide students with a code to join the conversation.
With NowComment, anyone can see comments, but to add to the discussion students must register for a free account. Any sentence, paragraph, image, or video can have multiple conversations. The interface is very easy to use. Check out this detailed description about NowComment with screenshots in the Life Feast blog.
Hypothes.is and Genius
Hypothes.is and Genius are both tools that allow students to annotate any website as well as have a collaborative discussion. Students can highlight parts of the website, respond to peers, and vote up really great responses from peers. Both require registration and signing in.
Teachers register for a free LinoIt account and create a web wall where they can share pdfs, files, audio, video, images, and more! Teachers share the link to the wall with students who can choose between different colored sticky notes and add video, pdfs, links, and more. Students don’t have to register and can access the web wall on any device.
Padelt is also accessible on any device and similar to LinoIt with more features, but educators only get 3 padlets free. Teachers can upload videos, images, pdfs, audio clips, and more! Students only need the link to the web wall to contribute via text, sticky notes, chatting, liking, upvoting, and more. Students can share audio, images, files, links, and video.
Flipgrid is a video response tool designed for schools. Students contribute a short video response to the discussion you start with a video. Students will enjoy their selfie videos they can decorate with stickers. Registration is free and students can also contribute with a mobile device. Create a Grid (group), add your question or topic, and students contribute short video responses. You send students a code or link to make the discussion private. You can determine the length of the video, embed the videos, and download the videos. This is an example of children replying to the question, “What does a quality education mean to you?”
GoBubble is a social networking tool designed for schools that looks similar to Twitter and other messaging apps so students must sign up. Students can respond with images, stickers, or text. They can also upload videos. They can participate in groups, add friends, and more!
With Active Textbook, students can respond to each other in comment threads added to any text as well as highlight. Teachers can enrich the discussion by adding videos, songs, and images for students to also engage with. Check out this detailed description about Active Textbook with screenshots in the Life Feast blog.
With Google Docs students can sign in with their Google accounts or you can provide them a link where anyone is able to participate with no sign-in required. Students can highlight parts of any text and add comments on the side. Students can reply to specific comments by clicking on the comment box. You can add visuals, charts, links and more. Check out other GSuite tools that offer collaborative discussion and contribution to slide presentations, spreadsheets, and more!
Similar to Google Docs in that you can provide a link or invite others through email, OneNote looks more like a digital notebook with sections. You can add images, links, drawings, and more. Check out other Microsoft 360 tools that offer collaborative discussion and feedback to slides, spreadsheets, presentations, and more!
Voicethread is a multimedia discussion web tool and app that allows teachers to add slides or images to spark a discussion. Around the border of the slide, students contribute ideas through audio, video, text or doodling. Students can use avatars to protect their identities, but need to register.
What other tips or tools do you recommend for facilitating engaging class discussions?
If you want to read more tips for online resources for teaching English, then check out Shelly's blog feed!