Discussion and debate form part of the core of learning and teaching, and also one of the easiest activities to run in a variety of different ways within our blended approach. These span both the on-site face-to-face mode, and in both synchronous and asynchronous digital forms.
On-site: Face to Face
There are normally two distinct approaches to running discussions in-class – they can be run with the whole class, or they can be split into group discussions. Each presents particular challenges under social distancing regulations, revolving predominantly around the reduction in student numbers within the classroom.
Traditional approaches to class discussions can work fine with smaller classes, but staff need to be prepared for a possible lack of breadth of opinion and limitation on the variety of discussion that could be the result of smaller class sizes. Having different arguments or viewpoints pre-prepared in such cases may be more important than they have previously been.
Smaller class sizes may also mean that you end up with a larger ratio of students that are nervous or unwilling to engage, so it will be important to both get to understand the personalities in your class quickly, and have a range of approaches to coax engagement from the seemingly unengaged.
Consider setting a pre-class digital task, asking the students to find online content (articles, videos, images, for example) about the topic to be discussed, and have them post these to a Padlet. This can then be displayed in each class and used to encourage discussion. The Padlet can then be built upon after class (or later in the semester) to shape discussion leading into a related topic.
Due to social distancing limitations, it will be difficult to have groups work together in a classroom. Groups will have limited seating and equipment availability. Where possible, have students bring their own devices to class, and use digital collaborative spaces (such as Blackboard Wikis, Padlet, Word or PowerPoint documents shared via OneDrive, and OneNote) instead of physical collaboration tools (such as whiteboards or paper).
Discussion amongst all students on your module is likely to only be possible via digital delivery, and there are a variety of options available through which to achieve this.
Classroom-style discussions can be undertaken using Blackboard Collaborate, which provides options for staff to allow open debate between students, while still being able to take control of the discussion if necessary. For example, running a debate where each side of the argument is allowed five minutes to present their case. The student presenting each case can be “given the microphone” by elevating them to be a presenter for their five minute duration, while the option to use the microphone is taken away from the rest of the class. At the end of the five minutes, the presenter is relegated back to the participant role. Once both sides have spoken, microphones can be enabled for all participants and the hand-raise tool can be used to kick off the interactive part of the debate.
Blackboard Discussion Boards are often used for asynchronous forms of discussion, normally over a longer period of time (e.g. a week rather than an hour). Setting a discussion in this way can allow students to take part at more suitable times for them – this benefits students who may be a little behind in their learning to give them time to catch up and learn from their peers.
Discussion Boards can, however, also be used in a synchronous fashion. Consider the model of the #LTHEChat on Twitter. Between 8pm & 9pm every Wednesday night, 5 questions on a specific topic are posted by the organising team, using the #LTHEChat hashtag. Twitter users can then answer those questions and discuss the responses being provided, all using the same hashtag to group the conversation. Discussion Boards can be used in the same way (without the need for a hashtag!). At a specified time, release one or two question threads for your students to read and respond to in real-time. The responses will be posted as replies, and so various threads of discussion should occur. Every 15 minutes (for example) you would post up a new question thread, until you have covered the questions you want to discuss. This provides your students with new discussion material, to avoid the conversation falling flat, but also doesn’t force the conversation around one question to cease, allowing a natural flow of debate and discussion to continue throughout the hour (and possibly beyond).
Delivering a class discussion (or other activity) via Blackboard Collaborate provides the option to then move your students into Breakout Groups in which they can discuss and collaborate freely. Within these they can share files, or use screen share to display another site or application – for example, they might demonstrate to their group how they used LibrarySearch to find a specific set of journal articles.