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5 online discussion tools to fuel student engagement

Online discussion tools give students a chance to connect with each other and be heard

Creating a classroom community where meaningful conversations can happen isn’t easy—it’s an ongoing process that takes time. But using online discussion tools can be one great way to help your students build these skills. Plus, the ability to engage in online discussions responsibly is a great 21st-century skill in and of itself.

Online discussions often lead to better in-class discussions afterward—you know, the kind where students raise their hands and speak out loud. With online discussions, students have a chance to engage with each other virtually, often having their thoughts and opinions validated. Afterward, they’re typically much more willing to share out loud in class and often share in thoughtful ways.

Related: 4 steps to making rigorous discussion a routine

Still not convinced? Here are a few more reasons to consider using online discussions:

  • Because comments are more permanent, students tend to think a bit more critically about what they say.
  • Especially for more introverted students, online discussions can be less intimidating than speaking in front of the class.
  • It’s easier for students to share dissenting opinions or “outside-the-box” ideas.
  • As students type responses, they often recognize and share more nuanced and compelling points and arguments.
  • Anonymous posting (though still teacher-moderated), a key feature with some discussion tools, can help erase the fear of public judgment or ridicule.
  • Everyone has ample opportunities to be heard and connect with other classmates, ensuring equity among all voices in your classroom.

If you’re looking for an online discussion tool, you’ve got a variety of options. Here are a few top picks and teacher favorites:

Backchannel Chat
Price: $15/year/class; $299/year/school
Platforms: Android, iOS, and web
Grades: 7-12

Backchannel Chat’s moderated online discussions are intended to engage students and encourage them to share. Think of it as a teacher-moderated, private version of Twitter, where students can discuss topics that might just transcend the virtual space. Setup is quick and easy: Teachers sign up, name their chat, and give students the URL. Students can join with only a name; no other personal information is required. Teachers can moderate discussions, remove messages, and “lock” the chat at any time.

Price: Free
Platforms: Web
Grades: 7–12

Kialo is a free platform designed to foster thoughtful debate and discussion. Students can browse for and participate in existing discussions or create their own. Once they’ve chosen a discussion, students then choose their side—pro or con—and add their own opinions via “claims.” Kialo is a good platform for teaching the importance of reasoned, respectful arguments when trying to persuade others. Most teachers likely will want to create private discussions limited to their students to focus on a curriculum- or class-related topic.

Related: 3 backchanneling websites to replace TodaysMeet

Price: Free
Platforms: Web
Grades: K-12

NowComment is a document-annotation and -discussion platform that allows students to mark up and discuss texts. Upload a document (in any number of formats) to create an online discussion area. Paragraphs for text are numbered, with the document shown on the left and the comment panel on the right. You can control when students can comment on a document and when they can see each others’ comments. For group projects or peer-reviewed activities, you can have students upload their own documents.

Price: Starts at $2.50/student for school-wide subscription
Platforms: iOS and web
Grades: 3-12

Known mostly as an online plagiarism detector, Turnitin has some lesser-known tools, too, including a built-in discussion platform. While the discussion tool may not be as robust as some other choices, Turnitin’s tool does offer anonymous posting and teacher-moderation options. Plus, if your students are already signed up and have accounts, getting started will be a cinch.

YO Teach!
Price: Free
Platforms: Web
Grades: 6–12

YO Teach! is a backchannel web app teachers can use to create and moderate chat rooms for real-time student interaction. The admin features allow teachers to delete posts, mute students, control room access, and use the interactive features. Students can interact with teacher and peer posts by sharing text messages, replying to others’ posts, voting, responding to polls, sharing and annotating pictures, and submitting drawings. YO Teach! can be an engaging way to encourage collaboration and social interaction among students.


 [Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Common Sense Education.]

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