Online Discussions in an Environmental Geology Course

Karin Kirk
SUNY Empire State College
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In this introductory-level course, the online discussions are the heart and soul of the course. Throughout the 7 online discussions, much of the course content is presented and digested, students employ critical thinking, perform online research, get to know one another and share relevant experiences. In the background, I stay very busy guiding and responding to the discussions.

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This is an introductory course for non-majors. Many of the students are adult learners and they tend to be highly motivated. Most people take this course out of an interest in the natural world or environmental issues. A significant portion of the students are pre-service or in-service teachers.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

There are no specific prerequisite skills other than a working knowledge of how to use the discussion tools and an ability to conduct basic internet research.

How the activity is situated in the course

There is a discussion for each module of the course. There are 7 modules, which range in duration from 1 week to 3 weeks.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

By participating in the course discussions I expect students to strengthen their understanding of the course materials and be able to relate that content to societal issues or to connect the topics to issues in their own hometown. For example, the module on plate tectonics contains a discussion that asks students to consider why it took so long for the theory of plate tectonics to be generally accepted. This discussion allows for comparisons to the acceptance of current science such as medical discoveries, dietary guidelines or emerging environmental science.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Students will be able to:
  • Connect course content to similar issues in their hometown
  • Synthesize information from a variety of sources (course text, course content, news, websites)
  • Distinguish credible information from spin
  • Use data to understand a topic and to make their point
  • Evaluate issues in the news in light of what they are learning in the course
  • Respond to posts from other students – this may require clarifying their original point, learning more in order to defend their position, or reconciling their position (all of which are excellent skills to develop).

Other skills goals for this activity

Students will be able to:
  • Compose thoughtful posts using correct grammar
  • Perform internet research from credible sources to learn more about a topic or to strengthen their position
  • Learn how to post images, data and links

Description of the activity/assignment

The online discussions are the single most important part of this course. They are worth more than any other component of the course and the students and I all put considerable time and energy into the discussions.

Disseminating course content is one of the more challenging aspects of online teaching, and discussions help to fill this gap. In order to have meaningful contributions to the discussions, students have to not only understand the topic, but also need to share their comments on it and relate the topics to a larger question. For example, a discussion about developing geologically active land prompts responses that demonstrate understanding of dynamic landscapes, geologic processes, the role of zoning, hazard mitigation and disaster insurance. In addition, a few students are likely to have had personal experiences with natural disasters and thus add firsthand insights that enrich the discussion.

Discussions are also a place where misconceptions arise and they can be easily addressed within this format. In a perfect world, students would be quick to point out flaws in each others' understanding, but when that does not happen, I seize the opportunity to point out the misconception (gently) and clarify it.

Because students have time to research their answers and reflect on their writing, online discussions can bring out wonderful insights and rewarding debates. Introverted students who might otherwise not be inclined to raise their hand in a face to face classroom seem to have an easier time jumping in. If students are not participating enough, I let them know ask them if anything is preventing them from participating, encourage them to get more involved, and suggest some ways for them to jump in.

The discussion topics all begin with open-ended questions that leave a lot of room for interpretation and the discussion is best when it wanders across a few topics. The discussions last for 1-3 weeks. For the longer discussions I have a series of follow-up questions at the ready. I post these to keep the topic moving, to get the class back on track, or simply to toss out a pop-quiz type question that alert students can grab onto.

Teaching Tips

Adaptations that allow this activity to be successful in an online environment

We all know the dreadful feeling when you pose a question to a lecture hall full of students and all you hear are crickets. An online discussion can be far more thought-provoking than a face-to-face discussion because students have time to reflect on the topic, read up on it, and compose their response. So the adaptations are to start off with a very broad question that allows the topic to wander a bit. A sufficient time frame is needed (minimum of one week) to allow the discussion to develop. Lastly, the discussions have to be worth some significant part of the grade so that students do not treat them as optional.

Elements of this activity that are most effective

The most effective element of online discussion is the way students get pulled into the course and are engaged with the content. This is easy to observe by simply noting how active the discussion is. The discussion about climate change never fails to be the most active one and it really brings everybody to the table (including me!).

Recommendations for other faculty adapting this activity to their own course:

  • Start off with a very broad question that has no correct answer. When you compose the original question, also prepare a series of follow-up questions that you can use to keep the discussion moving.
  • Limit the number of discussion boards to one at a time. Having multiple discussions going on simultaneously only dilutes the participation.
  • Being engaged is critical. The first time I taught this course I really stuck by the "guide on the side" tactic. After that fell fairly flat I got more involved. Students enjoy the interactivity and we all get to know each other much better that way. I post pictures, share anecdotes and seize opportunities to respond to posts in a way that builds content, clears up misconceptions, asks questions, and praises outstanding contributions.

Determining whether students have met the goals

I use a rubric for assessment (Excel 25kB Jun9 10). It separates discussion posts into six categories ranging from content-rich to non-substantive. As the discussion proceeds, I put hatchmarks into the appropriate columns. I also jot down comments about the student's overall performance. I do all of this on actual paper so that I don't have to switch back and forth between windows on the computer. I've found this makes the assessment process much easier.

At the end of the discussion I grade each student on a scale of 1-10, and I give them specific feedback on their discussion performance.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

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