Online Discussions: Pros and Cons

This week, I attended an online class session for the first time. My T509 course used Unhangout, a platform created through the MIT Media Lab. This platform allows participants/students to view instructional material as a whole class and then split up into smaller discussion groups. In these smaller groups, of up to ten people, students can video chat with their group. For our class, we recorded our discussion on a Googledoc, and then one student from each discussion group shared our thoughts once we reconvened as an entire class.

Let’s Start with the Cons First

  • The small group video discussion was rather awkward.
    • When communicating through a screen, it is difficult to judge nonverbal cues, so our transitions between speakers were rather slow and, again, slightly awkward.
  • Our discussion was not as efficient or as productive as it would have been in person.
    • Yes, this is a personal opinion, but I did not feel like I participated as fully in this discussion as I do in a regular class.
  • The conventions for a successful small group discussion were not clearly defined.
    • We eventually figured out that keeping our microphones muted while not speaking led to the best audio, but we did not know this at the beginning of the discussion.
  • The video introduction, with the entire class, was not as engaging as an in-person lecture.
    • Again, this is a personal opinion, but I am probably not the only learner to find it more difficult to pay attention in a digital learning environment.

Now On to the Pros

  • The Unhangout platform does help to alleviate one of the main fears about online learning – the fear that students will not have an opportunity to work in small groups and discuss ideas with their peers.
    • As an English teacher, I believe that small group discussions are essential to learning, and it is encouraging to see an online platform that is dedicated to preserving this aspect of education.
  • Though the small group discussion was awkward at the beginning, I felt more comfortable responding to my group members as the discussion progressed.
    • Like any small group working environment, it takes time to build up a rapport and norms for participating. It’s possible that the awkwardness I experienced was the result of being unfamiliar with discussions in this format rather than an inherent problem with the format itself.
  • It was convenient to be able to attend class while in my apartment.

What I Learned From This

While I still do not believe that online courses should replace traditional classes, especially in a high school setting, participating in the Unhangout session did inspire me to consider ways in which online discussions might work in blended learning or during school breaks. For example, a teacher could hold an optional online study group discussion after school. In addition, some schools are implementing online learning during snow days, and having the ability to incorporate small group discussions could be a great asset in those situations. Summer break is also a time when many students become disconnected from school, and having a few online discussions throughout the summer, perhaps related to summer reading, might be a useful experience for students. (All of these examples would require ensuring that all students have access to technology, but that is a topic for another blog post.)  Again, I do not view online discussions as an effective substitute for classroom discussions, but having platforms like Unhangout may be a step forward in helping to extend collaborative educational opportunities beyond the limitations of a traditional school schedule.

These reflections are based on my personal opinions of our online class discussion, and I would love to hear other opinions from my classmates who attended the session!

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7 Responses to Online Discussions: Pros and Cons

  1. Merisenda Bills says:

    I totally relate to the awkwardness! I also felt I wasn’t contributing/talking as much as I would have in person.

    I also think those are really interesting ideas about how something like this could be implemented in online learning or school settings. I really like the study group session idea. I could see this working for students who may not be able to stay at school later, but could participate from home.

    I didn’t know about schools implementing online learning during snow days. That’s neat!


  2. Shama J. says:

    Thanks for writing about your experience on unhangout! I definitely understand where you are coming from and the challenges (despite the opportunities/successes) that the unhangout platform presents. On the other hand, I really enjoying myself and that may be because of how I experienced the session because Val and I ended up watching the session together (by accident, her computer is dead and her ipad wasn’t working – eek technology fail). The point is, we really enjoyed thinking out loud about the discussion (both lobby and small group) with each other. Especially in the small group conversations, Val and I were able to listen to what was going on, quickly exchange ideas (muted, often during awkward silences), and encourage each other through verbal and nonverbal cues (you mentioned that this was lacking). It would be interesting for us (or Justin) to try this again but with half of the class trying this in pairs to see if the overall impression of the experience changes or if it is more effective in any way.


    • This is such an interesting idea! It’s great that you and Val were able to have a blended experience during the session with in-person interactions between the two of you and then online interactions with the rest of the group. I had not considered participating in the online class with a partner, and I expect that I would have enjoyed it more that way as well. I will definitely keep this suggestion in mind if I ever hold an Unhangout discussion for my students.


  3. Allison says:

    I LOVE the idea of having online interactions over the summer. I think this is a smart way to help stem the “summer slide.”


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