In a previous blog post, we talked about spider web discussions and how teachers can make the most out of this method in synchronous online classes. I’ve also mentioned that asynchronous spider web discussions deserve their own post, so that’s what we’re going to cover today!

As a short recap, spider web discussions are a great tool for student engagement and participation. This method encourages students to become learning leaders and promotes critical thinking, social skills, and even equity in the classroom.

In a brick-and-mortar school setting, students usually sit around an oval table and engage in insightful discussions. The teacher facilitates these discussions without “saving” the conversation from awkward silences. Therefore, the teacher’s job is to offer a prompt and map out the discussion as it’s happening. Hence, you’ll end up with a spider web map as students take turns speaking.

The teacher also adds comments and codes to the conversation. For example, they take note of each time a student brings up an interesting point, talks over their peers, or makes a good reference to the original text.

In the end, there is a debrief section in which students reflect on their discussion. Since it’s a team effort, they’ll also agree on a group grade — which is usually symbolic.

Asynchronous spider web discussions? No problem

It’s up to the teachers to create the right environment for class participation. For example, synchronous methods supported by web conferencing tools and even your learning management system (LMS) work great for some classes. However, some teachers might find out that synchronous isn’t working for them for various reasons.


Read more: Adopting the asynchronous mindset for better online learning


No matter how hard you try, it’s just not feasible for students to be online at the same time or have major connectivity issues at home. So the next best thing for hosting discussions is actually (drum rolls, please) the humble forum!

The truth is that people, in general, and your students, in particular, engage in asynchronous discussions on the internet all the time. Depending on your students’ ages, they might be familiar with all sorts of forums, such as Reddit or Discord.

They learn a lot from strangers on the internet, so why should the class conversation be any less valuable than face-to-face?

Making spider web discussions work in asynchronous online classes

For safety reasons, I wouldn’t go to Facebook, for example. That’s why it’s useful to have a tool that enables all students to participate equally. To accomplish this kind of asynchronous learning environment, all you need is a forum or discussion assignment that’s already available in your LMS.

Let’s see a step-by-step example of how you can use a discussion tool to boost participation in asynchronous classes:

  • Post a prompt

    Similar to synchronous discussions, the initial prompt has to be related to something they’ve already learned. This works great for the flipped classroom in which students read at home and complete a few online lessons related to the subject. In this way, they also have an incentive to complete their independent study until a specific deadline.

    The prompt can be whatever you want it to be, a written question, a video, an image, etc.

    Teacher prompt

    In this case, the asynchronous class can benefit from more engaging formats such as video prompts.

  • Student replies

    Students will reply to your initial prompt, but they can also reply to their classmates’ replies. This is essential since you won’t be adding any other replies until the very end, letting them do the “talking”. Nonetheless, you need to set some ground rules from the beginning:

    • Everyone participates. Just as in synchronous discussions, everyone can contribute, even if they’re not replying simultaneously.
    • Edit, but don’t delete. Some students tend to overthink and might delete their answers. This works against them since the idea is to learn from each other’s replies anyway. So, they can edit their responses to add more information or clarify their thoughts but never delete them.
    • Real profile pictures. Instead of face-to-face or Zoom interaction, real profile pictures and names are the next best thing (i.e., not a stock image or a pet or a unicorn, etc.). Maybe they can also use a nickname if they want.
    • Mind your manners. Remind students of the importance of politeness. They should always read before posting a comment. This part can be a correspondent to the “interrupts a colleague” code.
    • Posting facts. Students are encouraged to refer to the text, but they should do their best to reformulate ideas and cite the source whenever needed.
    • Set a time. It’s up to you to decide how much time your students are allowed to discuss. In synchronous classes, it can take anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes or more (depending on your students’ age). Asynchronous discussions can go on for hours or days, or at least until you feel that enough students have participated.
  • One reply, one idea

    Asynchronous spider web discussions are great, but your students can also get lost with so many answers. If you’ve ever been active on a forum, you know it can get a bit chaotic. Yet, it still works? How? By learning the discussion pattern and following a simple rule: one reply, one idea.

    A rule of thumb is to have them reply to others’ posts and just as a spider web, where they can build on their answers. They can keep to a central idea for a reply, much like people do on forums:

    student replies

    For example, if you’re prompting them to discuss a novel’s main themes, a great conversation can arise if students discuss one theme at a time.

  • Mapping the conversation

    Debriefing is an essential part of the spider web discussion method. That’s why it’s still useful to draw a map and give students feedback since it’ll be much easier to see how their contributions matter when it comes to the debrief part.

    In my opinion, it’s much easier to map an asynchronous discussion since you can read students’ replies anytime and use codes to describe their contributions. Furthermore, as I’ve mentioned in the synchronous spider web discussion post, teachers take notes whenever students bring up interesting facts, make references to the text, encourage their peers to participate, etc.

    Spider web discussion

    Sure, codes need to be tweaked up a bit for use in asynchronous discussions. Students can’t really interrupt someone in a discussion assignment. However, they can offer a reply that doesn’t consider what the previous person has mentioned, so it’s a kind of interruption.

    You can do this by hand (on paper), use a virtual drawing board, or a tool such as Equity Maps.


    Read more: How to facilitate meaningful discussions in hybrid or virtual classrooms


  • Debriefing

    As mentioned above, debriefing is non-negotiable. In this part, students evaluate their performance as a group based on a rubric that you provide. There are many ways to do this, but I recommend adding a reply at the end of the discussion, prompting students to reflect on the discussion. This is why the map (see number 4) is also handy since it helps them visualize their contributions.

    debriefing

    The good part is that a debate assignment also has a rubric option, so you can reuse the rubric each time you ask students to engage in a new discussion.

    rubric

    Alternatively, you can also ask students to do this through a survey, but it’s more important for them to read their classmates’ replies and agree on a team grade. Again, the whole class gets the same grade (that they get to choose), so they have to agree in the comments on a final grade eventually. Keeping it simple is the way.


    Read more: What is the role of rubrics in performance-based education?


  • Keeping track of progress

    In these types of scenarios, it’s easy to keep track of progress. Once the class picks a grade, you can add your feedback for them as a group. Then, you can grade each students’ answer and add individual comments. Since you’ve already taken notes and drawn a map, it’s easy to give feedback:

    student feedback

    In the end, remember that the goal here is to encourage students to participate and spark their curiosity about a topic and learn as a team. Consequently, the assignment can be non-graded. Alternatively, you can choose to ignore the discussion assignment i.e. the team grade won’t be added to the individual’s final grade. However, this doesn’t make it less important since it’s an excellent way to see their progress throughout the year.

Conclusion

One of the biggest challenges of asynchronous learning is boosting participation rates. However, good teaching methods such as spider web discussions work in different settings, and students can learn from each other even when they aren’t online at the same time.

Using the power of forum-style discussion assignments, teachers can genuinely encourage students to take ownership of their learning.

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