Lost in translation: discussion

I have been working on a series of blog posts about translating existing teaching practices into online models of delivery. In previous posts I looked at the lecture and the seminar, in this one I want to focus on the nature of  discussion.

Group discussion
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

One of the things I have noticed as the education sector moved rapidly to remote delivery was the different models that people used. However what we did see was many people were translating their usual practice to an online version, some have called this practice mirroring. As part of my work in looking at the challenges in delivering teaching remotely during this crisis period I have been reflecting on how teaching staff can translate their existing practice into new models of delivery that could result in better learning, but also have less of detrimental impact on staff an students.

In the physical face to face student experience, discussion is a core aspect of the learning process.

Discussion happens in formal and informal learning situations. It is part of the teaching and learning process within learning spaces, it happens as part of feedback and reflection. Students discuss their learning with their peers as well as with the staff who teach them Before the crisis, though a lot of this discussion took place physically face to face, some also took place online, as well as via technologies such as phone and text. In the current landscape, most discussion will now take place online with some limited social distanced discussion happening in physical spaces. In this post I am going to focus more on group discussion.

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

When we move discussions online, you need to ensure that people have a chance to contribute to the discussion and ask questions, as well as ensuring that they can be answered. Simply moving a discussion that would have happened in a physical space to an online video conference tool such as Zoom or Teams may not translate easily or even be effective.

From an educational perspective, you will want to bring in everyone into the discussion, so that they are engaged in the learning process. This can be simpler in a physical face to face sessions as you can see who might be disengaged. With an online live discussion using a tool such as Teams you won’t necessarily be able to “see” everyone and some students may not want to have their video on for various reasons. We know some students don’t have the necessary kit for video conferencing, or they may not want to share the environment in which they are broadcasting from. As a result not been able to see everyone can make it challenging to see who is engaging and who isn’t.

Sometimes the “obvious” answer isn’t the right answer. Making sure everyone has their video turned on, isn’t going to be practical and some tools such as Teams don’t actually show all the video feeds anyhow. Even with a tool such as Zoom, the video feeds might be too small to be able to ascertain who is engaged and who isn’t. As we know if they are looking at their computer screen, this doesn’t necessarily mean they are actually engaged with the conversation!

So trying to translate a discussion into an online version can be challenging and fraught with difficulties and may not necessarily engage all the students into the process. So how do you, and how could you translate a one hour discussion into an effective learning experience that happens online. The key aspect is to identify the learning outcomes of that discussion and ensure that they are achievable in the translated session.

Merely translating that one hour discussion  into a one hour Teams or Zoom session probably works fine for many if udertaken in isolation. However it’s not just an hour, students may also be involved in other online seminars, Zoom lectures, live video streams and more online content. This can be exhausting for those taking part, but also we need to remember that in this time there are huge number of other negative factors impacting on people’s wellbeing, energy and motivation. People may not be able to participate in synchronous sessions, they may have childcare or other dependents they need to look after, they may be other household challenges.

Running an online video discussion, is a different experience to doing a face to face discussion. It can be harder to read the visual cues that we take for granted when listening and speaking. It’s challenging to avoid a stilted conversation, as participants try and engage when there are latency issues. There can be multiple people all trying to speak at once, this can be both frustrating, but can also put people off from talking and contributing. So though you may be experienced in a face to face discussion, it can be useful to structure and plan a video discussion, so the students have a clear idea about what is expected of them and what they will need to contribute in that discussion. Structuring who will be talking and having clear guidance on how to work out who wants to talk and how they identify themselves. In a physical situation this can be easily done via people raising their hands. Though tools such as Teams and Zoom allow a virtual hand raising it can be easily missed, unless you are paying attention to it. 

video chat
Photo by Dylan Ferreira on Unsplash

One of the affordances on using an online video conferencing tool such as Zoom or Teams for discussions is that you can have people contributing through the chat function. Some students may prefer to post their thoughts and questions to a text chat than turn on their video and use the microphone. They may also be in an environment or space where that isn’t possible. You may need additional support in reviewing the chat as well as managing the verbal discussion.

You could even lose the video aspect.

So another possible translation, you could take your 60 minute live physical discussion into a 60 minute synchronous live text discussion. Again it will be useful to structure and plan a textual discussion, so the students have a clear idea about what is expected of them and what they will need to contribute, as with a video conference discussion.

Then another option is to lose the live element. It doesn’t take much planning to transform that  60 minute discussion into a week long asynchronous textual discussion. This format is useful for students who have challenges in attending at a fixed time due to home or personal commitments, but it’s also an ideal format for students who may be resident in different time zones. The teacher can interject and encourage students to participate in the discussion across the week and this is much easier to manage than trying to do this in a one hour session.  You can easily see who is contributing and who isn’t and encourage them accordingly.

Asynchronous and online discussions can often be participated in by much larger groups than in a face to face environment so discussions could happen across cohorts, subjects, departments or even with other universities. The teacher interaction becomes more flexible and they can decide when to participate and adapt it to their own personal circumstances. Though in terms of contact hours, or timetabling you can see how the final model would be challenging.

Simply translating what we do in our physical buildings into a online remote version, is relatively simple, however it may not be effective. Thinking about what you want that learning experience to achieve and what you want the students to learn, means you can do different things. Of course knowing how to do those different things, is another challenge.

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