Online courses are plentiful and popular, but they often take away an essential component necessary to form ideas, increase understanding, and develop perspectives — verbal, back-and-forth dialogue.

Many university instructors use Canvas, or a similar platform, for course material, and most instructors use the “discussion” feature to elicit back-and-forth dialogue among students. The instructor (or a student, if the task is assigned) posts one or more questions, and the class is expected to respond. This form of discourse does not allow for the most effective back-and-forth dialogue about ideas and perspectives. In written dialogue, you can certainly have thoughtful conversations, but your ideas are not easily tested or challenged. And when you are not looking at and listening to a person, you miss context and can misinterpret words and meanings.

I taught an online course open to all undergraduate students about the politics of education, and I wanted students to really grapple with the topics of the course. Education is a personal and emotional topic and can be quite divisive — people disagree on what topics children should be taught and how children should be taught them. To appreciate and fully understand the political nature of education and educational policy, a real-time back-and-forth dialogue is most effective.

Therefore, rather than restricting my students to written discussion, I included real-time, virtual discussions in my online course. I did this by dividing students into groups that would meet, via Zoom, three times over the 8-week course. They were required to use both audio and video, and one group member was responsible for recording and submitting the discussion (I was not present during the discussions). This teaching and learning method could be effective for online courses that cover any debatable (or even discussable) topics.

Because the course covered politics, I knew discussion of politicians would likely occur among students in their groups. I taught this course for four semesters from fall 2017 through spring 2019. Because of the constant concern about students being “triggered” by controversial topics, I was a little worried that unmediated discussion about politics among strangers might end in arguments or a flood of email complaints. This was not the case. Instead, students had thoughtful and passionate discussions about their previous knowledge of the education system and how course content shifted or expanded their understanding of the system.

The course was titled The Politics of K-16 Education, and I split the course into three units: the history of the politics of education, the players (e.g., influential politicians, philanthropists, advocacy groups, etc.), and the game (e.g., social movements, advocacy efforts by players to pass policy). Each week, students read articles, listened to podcast episodes, or watched videos related to the topic. In addition, each week, they listened to narrated PowerPoint lectures given by me, which overviewed what they read or listened to that week, provided any necessary contextual information, and previewed upcoming content.

To set the stage for dialogue about politics, the first reading was the introduction chapter of The Political Classroom by Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy. This introduced students to the type of “classroom” we were creating and to how they were expected to approach discourse in their group discussions. Following the reading, they responded to the set of questions below.

Visualize a deliberative classroom. What does it look like to you? How do Hess and McAvoy describe a deliberative classroom? Is your vision similar to what Hess and McAvoy describe?

The syllabus and my first PowerPoint lecture included expectations for student engagement in these group discussions. These expectations included:

This class is about politics, not politicians. I will present the material from a non-partisan stance, and I expect the same from all students.

Everyone has a worldview that is shaped by their life experiences. Be respectful of each student and enter the “classroom” with the mindset that you will learn from other students.

Approach each class discussion and assignment with the intention to contribute and produce your best work.

Throughout the course, I reiterated that students could share their experiences with education, but that in written and oral assignments, all experiences and opinions had to connect back to the course material.

I posed two sets of discussion questions at the end of each unit. The questions related to course content up to that point and were structured like a funnel. I started with broad overarching questions then narrowed to more specific questions. The following question set covered material from unit two, which focused on the “players” involved in educational policy.

Thinking back to our discussion of federalism, does court involvement in education honor the aims of federalism? In what cases might it be important for courts to set a precedent for the school system? How have religious interest groups used the court system to challenge education policy? How did the Hasidic population that was discussed in the episode of This American Life politically challenge the New York school district?

As you can see, the questions focus on political activity rather than specific politicians, which helped students to think more broadly — about actors as parts of systems. This question set evoked one of the most thoughtful efforts at mutual understanding in the four semesters I taught the course. One of the assignments for the unit was to listen to a This American Life episode, titled “A Not-So-Simple Majority.” The episode tells the story of how a religious community that sends their kids to private school but pays local property taxes to the public school system, won the majority of seats on the school board and began defunding the public school system. The politics surrounding the school board resulted in a community divided.

During one group discussion of this podcast episode, a student was outraged because the students of the public school district were delayed in graduation because of budget cuts voted on by the school board. Another student in his group applauded the religious community for swiftly coming together for a common cause. Watching the video of their discussion, I could imagine a scenario in which each student retreated to their pre-determined side and either dismissed the other person’s views or moved on without mutual understanding. But, because the group was having a real-time dialogue, they could see the sincerity in each other’s facial expressions. And instead, they asked follow-up questions to understand each other’s perspectives better. Thus, the difference in opinion sparked a conversation about the merits of the school board’s efforts and the importance of a unified community.

Moments like this reminded me why I included video-recorded group discussions in my course, rather than relying on written discussion posts. Discussion posts are often stale, scripted, and don’t tell you much about how well students grasped the content or whether they were thinking critically about the course material. Face-to-face dialogue on the other hand, even if through a screen and pair of earbuds, provides a richer experience for students to engage with and understand one another.