Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

October 31, 2014

Leading online talks that enrich in-person class

Associate Professor Dian Million talks about how she gets the most out of online discussions in her American Indian Studies class


“To have successful online discussions, ones that matter, you need to build a small-group culture in your classroom.”

Dian Million
Associate Professor, American Indian Studies


For Dian Million, online discussions provide a safe space for students to explore challenging issues. She has always promoted discussions as a way to engage students.

“I’ve never liked lecturing. I hate it,” she says. “I come from communities that are dialogic.”

She was pleased to find that online discussions in her hybrid-format course, Indian Children and Families (AIS 340), can not only match but can exceed the quality of in-person discussions by providing another safe place for students to discuss difficult issues.

“You can’t teach this subject without speaking about colonialism, race, class, gender and sexuality,” says Million, who was a Teaching with Technology Fellow in 2013. “The online groups give them some space. It prepares them to have more personal conversations when we’re together.”

Keeping discussion groups small is extremely important, says Million, who reports that her students say they felt safer first exploring these issues with just a few other students.

Million’s four tips to get started

1. Keep groups small

When discussing complex or potentially emotional issues, Million divides the students into groups of four that will meet all quarter, online and in person. Students first discuss issues online in their small group.

“I set up questions and lead them in. Then they develop their own questions,” says Million.

During face-to-face class, Million pairs small groups to talk together, as she works to deepen the discussion. When students prepare presentations, another step is added. Each group posts its project online to the whole group for comment, then is allowed to make revisions before presenting it in-person to the class.

2. Monitor discussions

In her class of 40 students, Million follows all 10 discussion groups of four students each. “It takes a lot of time,” she says. Through short comments, she works to keep discussion flowing. “I try to keep people on track, saying, ‘This issue seems to have become key. What do you think about it?’”

Million uses material from the online discussions to shape the content of in-person sessions and to guide team interactions.

“I sometimes have a group that’s really interested in problems. I pair them with a group that’s upbeat about successes in Indian Country, so they can be brought together into a discussion about what’s working.”

3. Scaffold questions

Million says it’s crucial to structure the discussions, first to help students get started and then to guide them through class content. “In the first discussion, they discuss their own families. That’s how I warm them up.”

As part of this task, Million asks, “Is there an ideal American family? Has there ever been?” This first discussion isn’t graded, so students can become comfortable with the topic, the online format, and most importantly, the other three students in their group.

Then Million introduces information on Native American families, noting the link between health and economics so the students can “begin to understand how it might be difficult to have a healthy economy if the people don’t have good health.”

Then the students tackle bigger questions, such as, “Which should come first? Should the people work for better health to be able to develop a healthy economy or do they need more economic health to obtain better physical and mental health in the community?” As the class progresses, Million guides students through a series of additional topics, many that touch on related positives such as successful education programs.

4. Hold students accountable

After the first warm-up discussion, students are graded on their participation in the online and in-person discussions, and contributions to group projects. As needed, Million discusses team roles and may assign students to serve in certain roles (such as timekeeper).

She also helps them focus and organize group projects, such as the creation of infographics and other presentations. During in-person class she’ll tell students, “I want to see your plan today. I’ll be visiting with all of you and I want to see how you’re going to divide the work, what your product is going to be.”

Learn more

This article was originally published on November 2014 as part of a UW Provost report on trends and issues in public higher education.