One participant came to speak to me about how the training session had been for her. At this early stage as a trainer, I had thought it had been good, but I listened. I had engaged participants with the content and had facilitated good discussion, either in small groups within the class or sometimes as a whole class.
“I am an introvert…” she said, “and I find it really hard to go from learning about a topic to talking about it almost right away with other people, even in small groups. I need time to reflect before I talk to others.”
Since then I have sought to give more reflection time in classroom sessions but this always has limits. It is hard to balance reflective time with time for participants to speak in class, either sharing their experience or asking thought-provoking questions. Facilitation inevitably involves keeping an eye on the clock. Keeping time for coffee break conversation is also important for learning!
How can digital learning do better? There are two ways I see that digital can help; one is fairly familiar and to be expected; the other perhaps less so. First of all, the familiar one…
Discussion forums are commonly used within digital training. This means that as well as synchronous discussion, with comments interconnecting as in a classroom, it is also possible to have asynchronous discussion, where comments are posted on a forum to be viewed or responded to after they are made. This helps not only introverts, but also others who wish to reflect further before posting, and helps lead to a richer discussion. There is a place for both synchronous and asynchronous discussion, and digital enables both. Each has different strengths, asynchronous for reflective discussion and synchronous for high energy to stimulate exploratory discussions or brainstorming or motivating those on the margins.
But there are also other advantages to discussion forums. Sometimes in a classroom, a fruitful conversation can occur informally after a class between a staff member and a student. I have seen and experienced this personally. But if it is face-to-face, the benefit to everyone else is lost unless summarised and shared widely with others later. Conversely, I have been in tutorial groups where a topic discussed is not relevant to me, yet there is no easy escape! Digital forums display each conversation to be selected as desired. It is thus possible to choose which ones to join and contribute to, and equally, which to ignore. One big advantage to discussion forums is in connecting learners who are drawn to the most appropriate topics, both to learn from and to contribute to.
The other way that digital enables reflective conversation is with digital documents. Digital significantly changes the nature of documents beyond convenience. With comments from readers enabled, the nature of a document changes significantly in at least two ways when made digital. For example, I found a recipe for Irish soda bread online but I not only read the recipe but also the comments below. Contributors suggested maybe more of one ingredient or less of another. Some readers added a surprise ingredient and told of subsequent results! This made the recipe no longer static, as it would be in a book, but that it was made alive by the community of contributors. A second change with digital is that while the authority of a book typically comes from the writer or publisher (such as a Delia Smith recipe in the UK!), with digital it comes from the acceptance of its readers.
Thus, digital forums and comments on online documents are both ways to enable asynchronous discussion among learners. This will result in a more reflective and so, more rewarding conversation.
How can digital enable better opportunities for discussion for your learners?
Read more blog posts by Peter Tate:
Peter Tate designs and delivers interfaith and cross-cultural training in both classroom and digital formats at the King’s Centre Southall, London. This is alongside his studies for a Masters in Digital Education with Edinburgh University on how to implement a Dialogue Education (DE) approach in online environments. He previously provided training consultancy as Brainy Training Solutions for various charities, including financial management training for the WaterAid charity. Before that, he delivered DE-type training for UK based charities Hope Consultants (developing digital training to make use of DE) and Wycliffe UK (training trainers to implement DE within their adult learning programmes).