How Online Learning is Changing Classroom Discussion

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Shyness and timidity are pervasive among college students. That's one thing I've discovered in seven years as an adjunct instructor for several undergraduate nutrition courses and nursing programs. From behind a small podium, in a classroom of between 15 and 50 students, I see how few raise their hands to answer a question or are painfully hesitant to express a firm opinion about a topic. Some of this can be attributed to unengaged students or an addiction to smartphones. However, to a large extent, anxiety about speaking up in public and in front of an allegedly more knowledgeable instructor plays a role as well.

I've tried to combat the problem by coming up with clever ways to draw my audience out. I walk around the classroom talking about nutrition topics in the news and cracking a joke or two (I may not be that funny, but I'm not that boring, either). By the end of the semester, many students will have warmed up to me and their classmates, but only to a limited degree.

What's Different about Teaching Online Courses?

About two years ago, when I started teaching undergraduate and graduate nutrition courses online, I noticed that the dynamic was quite different — and enlightening. In a virtual classroom, which typically comprises 15 to 25 students, online learners are required to "introduce" themselves in a discussion forum so their classmates and instructor can learn something about them right away. These introductions typically offer information such as where students are from, why they chose this particular program of study, their career goals, past work experiences and so forth.

I end up knowing more about these online learners than I ever would of students in a physical classroom. Given time constraints and course formats, teaching in person doesn't quite lend itself to the sharing of personal information. The detailed information that I acquire about my online students greatly enhances my ability to connect with them and direct our online discussions in ways that best suit their goals.

Interestingly, the online classroom also creates an environment that seems to chip away at poor levels of student participation. As part of successfully completing a virtual course, students are required to actively participate in weekly online discussion forums. In doing so, they are encouraged to think critically about given topics and express opinions or conclusions in organized and thoughtful written work. In addition, they must also reply to the comments made by their peers. This arrangement establishes lively classroom discussions.

Naturally, a similar dynamic can occur in a physical classroom, but what is so intriguing is that the level of anonymity inherent in an online course appears to inspire many students to share more about themselves than they otherwise would in person. In an online format, many learners reveal important and relevant nuances about their lives, such as the fact that a family member has Type 1 diabetes, or a personal experience with Crohn's disease, or a past battle with disordered eating, or an opinion about the Paleo diet. Not surprisingly, as these facts emerge, they create wonderful opportunities for students to engage with one another in ways that are more significant for them and more gratifying for me as the facilitator of these discussions.

This is an exciting outcome of using information technology to deliver instructional content in a way that greatly differs from traditional methods. Indeed, technology has made deeper student-to-student and student-to-instructor interactions more achievable. In so doing, it has allowed the learning process to evolve in a more student-centered fashion, which has implications for future learners and instructors alike.

Elizabeth Eilender
Elizabeth Eilender, MS, RD, CDN, is an online adjunct instructor at American University in Washington, D.C., and co-editor of The Educator's Resource, the professional practice newsletter of the Nutrition Educators of Health Professionals dietetic practice group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.