Context

One of the outcomes of my Communications Law class -- and several classes I teach -- is to encourage students to connect course content to current events, applying concepts to real-world situations and discussing those with classmates. I want students to see when issues like free speech, libel, and privacy crop up in news reports and to discuss with classmates how what they were reading in the news relates to course concepts. By encouraging students to bring in examples, it helps ensure more diversity in the kinds of examples used in class discussions, foster more engagement in the discussions because students have ownership of the specific newsworthy items brought up for discussion, and connect student learning to real-world application of course content. Most importantly, through discussions students better grasp course content in general, especially in asynchronous online discussions (Wolff & Dosdall, 2010). Additionally, by using an informal, social-media-like discussion format, students develop competencies for engaging in informal learning communities that exist outside of the classroom (Redecker, Ala-Mutka, & Punie, 2010). That is especially useful in modeling how students can discuss real-world issues, including contentious ones that relate to social or political problems, with substance and collegiality. 

Step-by-Step Implementation

  1. Decide what kind of content you want students to share. In my class, I wanted students to engage with the professional literature and news, and I wanted them to share what they found. So I asked that they share brief comments on what they found as well as a link to the original article. Make sure to give students clear instructions on what counts. My students could post anything related to course content, even if it was from a course topic we had already discussed or one we had not covered yet.
  2. Give students a sample list of resources that they can use to find relevant course content. For my communications class, I gave students links to blogs, law centers, law journals, and other related websites. I encourage students to look elsewhere, but providing the list gives them a foundation they can use to start exploring authoritative, discipline-specific resources
  3. Use a tool that allows for informal discussion. One of the goals of this class discussion was to mimic real-world discussion. Online that means social media. I used CN Post, which is a tool that can be integrated into Canvas to allow students to create posts and reply to each other's posts in a way that seems more natural than a traditional online discussion. 
  4. Create clear goals in CN Post. CN Post gamifies participation by giving students “seeds” for their activity, like creating a new post, responding to another’s post, liking a post, or visiting a link. You can adjust the number of seeds students get for each type of activity, and you can set goals for the class. In my class, students got 30 seeds per post, 15 seeds per reply to another’s post, two points for visiting a link, etc.
  5. Create hashtags. You can add instructor-created hashtags that students are prompted to add to their posts. I created hashtags related to course topics (e.g., #FirstAmendment, #Libel, #Privacy, etc.), as well as a few related to larger issues that spanned the course (e.g., #VagueLaw, #ThatShouldBeIllegal, #InternetLaw, etc.). Students could also add their own hashtags. When browsing through posts, instructors and students can use hashtags to quickly see just those posts with that hashtag.
  6. Connect the CN Post seed goal to an assignment in Canvas. If you want students to get credit for CN Post participation, you can connect it to an assignment in Canvas. Then as students earn seeds on CN Post, they get points in your gradebook. (Yes, that means participation is auto-graded.) In my class, students were required to earn 1,000 seeds over the course of the semester, and that translated into a 100-point assignment in my gradebook (which was 10 percent of their grade). 
  7. Model good discussion participation. Stay engaged in the discussion, creating posts and responding to students.

Effectiveness

Students were far more aware of contemporary issues and their connection to course content than in the past. In the past, few students had heard of the newsworthy examples I brought into class discussions. With this strategy, students were not only aware of the news stories but their posts -- and especially their replies to classmates -- showed their application of course knowledge to the news item. For instance, when posting a story about a public official suing a media organization for libel, several students -- without prompting -- discussed how the case was unlikely to succeed because of the requirements necessary to win a libel claim. Moreover, almost half of the students actually participated in these CN Post discussions more than required, with two earning 30 percent more seeds than required. In this and in another online class where I used this kind of discussion in CN Post, students also told me they felt more connected to classmates.

Inclusivity

One of the principles of Universal Design for Learning is to provide multiple means of engagement. This strategy does that by optimizing individual autonomy and relevance. Students are given choices in how often they post, what topic they post about, and even the form of their post (original post or response, for example).

Adaptability

This strategy could be used across disciplines -- the only thing that needs to be revised is the list of foundational resources and the expectations students have for the kind of content they should post. This strategy was developed for an online class to not only engage students by connecting course content to news items and professional literature, but also to provide a relatively informal discussion tool to help create and sustain connection among students in an asynchronous online class. However, this strategy, of encouraging students to keep track of professional, discipline-related sources and bringing those resources into class, could be used in a face-to-face environment, with or without the use of CN Post. However, CN Post provides a way to keep track of that discussion and allows it to occur outside of set class times.