I recently took a SLOAN-C course from John Thompson, who has been teaching online courses for many years and has published a number of articles on best practices for online collaboration and discussion. I'll post my thoughts on two of them here. You can find more in Thompson's Power Point slides at the following link:
Two strategies to improve engagement in online discussions are building a sense of community and requiring participation. Building a sense of community involves many facets stemming from a sense of presence, involvement, and connection between instructor and students and the students with one another. A few of the benefits of building a community include more motivation for learning, better contributions from students and thus better course content (students learn from one another), and the development of personal learning networks that students can use to continue learning after the course is over.
To implement the strategy of building a community, the instructor can start with an ice-breaker discussion, in which students provide some personal information about themselves. This allows students to get a better sense of who their classmates are, to see them as people who are interesting and who may have common interests or potential for furthering a relationship. Another way to implement the strategy is to keep an active presence as an instructor (Shea et al. 2005). When the instructor shows that the discussion is important or interesting, students may be more likely to do so as well. Also, the instructor is the one person with whom all the students have a relationship for the class. As such, the instructor can bring students together on a topic, or help them feel like they belong. The instructor also sets the tone or culture of the community, so the instructor’s involvement should be strategic in helping the discussion to grow and move in the best direction. Finding the appropriate balance of instructor vs. student participation is important, too.
Building community is effective for improving engagement for a number of reasons. One is that as students feel like they belong to an active group, they will likely have more desire to become part of the action. A second reason is that as students find others with whom they can relate, they may form discussions and learning networks that are relevant to their own interests, and that relevance can encourage more engagement.
The second strategy, requiring participation, is fairly straightforward. As mentioned in the online presentation, all students benefit from extrinsic motivation. A way to implement this is to make discussion participation part of the course grade. State this at the beginning of the course, making clear what the expectations are. There should be a minimum level of participation, and a grading rubric is helpful to show that higher level thought is expected, rather than merely stating opinion. Making the discussion mandatory is effective for improving engagement in a number of ways. For example, it immediately makes the discussion practical and useful for achieving immediate goals (e.g., passing the course). It also can be the little push required to prime the pump of more intrinsic motivation. Once students get into discussions, they may get caught up in defending points, seeing how others will respond, finding out who is right, and so on.