When they work, online discussions provide students with transformative experiences. They require students to think critically about a topic, delve deeply and explore their position, and create community with their classmates. However, all too often, simple discussion prompts requiring students to post once and reply twice garner weak responses and half-hearted discussion.
Cue online protocols. They present students with specific, structured, timed tasks in the discussion tool to meet an objective as a group. Online protocols have been around for a while; there has even been a book written on the subject, Going Online with Protocols (see resources). Protocols can even help with notoriously nebulous tasks such as reflections.
Over a century ago, American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey published How We Think. In his treatise, Dewey named reflection as a crucial step in the learning process. Effective reflection is not a stream of consciousness daydream, but rather a rigorous process that makes meaning through the efforts of a well intentioned community of learning.
The challenge for online educators is to provide students with the opportunity to reflect on their experience productively. Students need not only to look back at where they have come but also to glimpse the future. Going Online with Protocols has an example of the perfect protocol for online reflection: the “What? So what? Now what?” protocol. The following steps have been adapted from that source.
At the end of the course—or even after each unit or book—students working in small groups post their responses to the following questions:
- What? What have I learned from this course and what are the big ideas?
- So what? Why do these ideas matter? Why was this learning important?
After students make their initial posts that answer these questions, they all respond to at least two of their peers’ threads with suggestions for how to make the most of what they have learned, how to apply what they have learned, what are some next steps for learning. In other words, they supply the Now what? for their peers.
Instructors may feel called to supply their own What? and So what? threads, sharing what they themselves learned throughout the term. Instructors should also strongly consider responding with their own Now what? suggestions to every student, just as they responded to every student in the introduction activity.
This protocol helps students make meaning out of what they have learned through a systematic, rigorous process. Students work together to complete all the steps of the process, and by doing so they show an interest in the personal and professional growth of their classmates.
Resources on Reflection
Block, J. (2014, May 20). Let It Marinate: The Importance of Reflection and Closing. Retrieved April 13, 2017.
Popova, M. (2017, March 27). How We Think: John Dewey on the Art of Reflection and Fruitful Curiosity in an Age of Instant Opinions and Information Overload. Retrieved April 13, 2017.
Rodgers, C. (2002). Defining Reflection: Another Look at John Dewey and Reflective Thinking. Teachers College Record,104(4), 842-866. doi:10.1111/1467-9620.00152
Resources on Online Protocols
McDonald, J. P., Zydney, J. M., Dichter, A., & McDonald, E. C. 2012. Going online with protocols: New tools for teaching and learning. New York: Teachers College Press.
Moore, J. A. (2016, May). Using Online Protocols for Discussions. Online Classroom, 16, 1, 3. Retrieved April 17, 2017. Available only to subscribers.