I’m in the home stretch for my MBA studies. I’m taking advantage of the online studies program that Colorado State University offers (go Rams!). Today, I wanted to talk about in-class discussions. Applications of these techniques aren’t just limited to college courses. Companies could use this to talk about issues affecting multiple offices, too.

During my undergraduate days, there were courses in which I couldn’t wait for the in-class discussion. These days, as an online student, I dread them. What’s the difference?

The way that classes are made available in the MBA program is through use of a professional videographer, who controls cameras mounted throughout the room. They film live class sessions, focusing on the person talking or reaction shots. Overall, they do a superb job and it is an immersive experience. Not only that, but it’s a watching experience I can have at my convenience.

However, when I find myself wanting to say something, the limits of the medium become clear. Class videos are a one-way transmission. If I were to watch live, I could send a message to the SC in the room (section coordinator, think teacher’s assistant.) However, I time-shift my classes to match my schedule, so the session is well done and gone before I see it.

Professors recognize this, so they attempt to simulate this discussion. The rest of this post will compare a couple of these asynchronous discussion facilitation strategies. By asynchronous, I mean it in the software sense, that the discussion won’t be held all at once. Instead, each student will contribute at a time of his or her choosing.

The naive approach is to require that students post in a discussion forum on the topic, and then reply to a certain number of other students’ responses. This approach does not scale well. Typically, these MBA classes have hundreds of online students. Each time someone replies, it becomes increasingly difficult to contribute something original to the discussion. Therefore, for students like me that time-shift the lecture to the weekend, this setup is crushing. Reading through 273 posts in the hopes that no one has said the thing that came to mind when I saw the material brings me to the discussion with the wrong attitude. Students who post earlier are at a strong advantage here.

Some professors try to mitigate this risk by having students post in forums specific to their SC. This helps by reducing the number of students involved. With only several dozen students, this approach is manageable. However, it still poses the drawback that students can read other replies before posting their own. In fact, there’s a noticeable drop in quality as the thread continues. Here, the best learning opportunities are also granted to early posters.

Some professors restrict viewing of the forum thread until you have posted. This does make it easier for later posters. However, it can lead to a lot of duplication and repeated comments, which make the forums less engaging.

ACTIV82LRN is an interactive learning package that creates an environment which has some advantages over a discussion forum. In a typical use case, the first activity is for a student to write a response to a prompt. Normally, they will choose from a set of options (agree/disagree, for example) and then write a detailed response. Then, the student will be shown a sampling of other students’ responses. They will be asked to rate the most and least effective responses. The exercises I enjoyed the most were ones where I was asked to write up feedback on a given post. While this method provided the highest engagement, as far as I know, the interactions through the tool were only visible to the graders. I never received feedback given through the tool. Perhaps the “other student” responses were written by the professor.

Regardless, I found ACTIV82LRN far preferable to other discussion forum strategies. Overall, I think the most effective strategy would be real-time (“synchronous”) small group discussions moderated by an SC, using a tool like Doodle to coordinate scheduling. However, that’s a heavy burden on SCs, who would have to attend many of these small group conversations.

What do you think? If you had a geographically diverse group and wanted to foster a discussion like this, how would you approach it?