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Digital Discussion Groups: No Longer Limited to Distance Education

Digital Discussion Groups: No Longer Limited to Distance Education

Have you noticed that chalkboards are turning into class-sized computer screens, or that school libraries are looking more like coffee shops where directed group discussions and collaborative efforts are being held on students’ personal devices?

Digital discussion groups are becoming the “new normal” in traditional classes.

Instead of being reluctantly pulled along to this digital revolution, we can guide students into using digital media to learn more efficiently and productively.

But before we begin considering best practices for digital group discussions, let’s look at the biblical role and priority for such educational activities.

Biblical View of Peer-to-Peer Educational Relationships

Let’s take a quick look at how educational relationships are framed within the Bible. We might expect that the most common passages dealing with education (the ones we often hear at commencements and convocations) focus on vertical educational relationships. It may be surprising how easy it is to overlook the social component of learning expressed in these specific passages.

Deuteronomy 6:4–9:

4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Verses 4–7 invoke vertical relationships, such as author/reader and parent/child. However, in 7b–9, we read about peer-to-peer communication, presented as a reminder and an item for discussion on the hand, forehead, doorposts and gates. Might one’s digital wall or a conversation during lunch be a natural extension and application of this?

Proverbs 1:7ff

7 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. 8 Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching, …

10My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent. …

20 Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; 21 at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:

The parental (vertical) relationships in verses 7–8 are clear. Verses 10–19 focus on horizontal relationships or situations with sinners (i.e., not consenting to enticements). This is followed in verses 20 with the echo of Wisdom heard in public peer-to-peer relationships on the streets, in the markets, and at the gates.

These notable passages of instruction shows both vertical and horizontal educational relationships inextricably synthesized. They admonish the learner to take the teaching (received from an authority) into community as part of the learning process, not as a distinct effect, product, or result of learning.

The Bible refers to the merely informative approach to education as a curse in Isaiah 28:13:

“And the word of the Lord will be to them precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little, that they may go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.”

The metaphor for biblical education in these prominent passages is not the sequential acquisition of informative data points. Although education should involve some rote memory work, these passages seem to present this type of work as partial or incomplete education.

These passages imply that the learner take an active role with the material being learned, displaying it in some way. This model elevates the idea of a team dynamic, such as care and concern for peers, encouragement, and expectations for peers. It also reinforces the idea that to really learn something, it helps significantly if you have opportunities to teach it, talk about it, or take responsibility for it in some way.

As we look at some ways to do this in a digital setting, let’s first consider how American view such relationships in education.

American Mindset Toward Group Work

Inherent within any dialogue or discussion is the concept of relationship, and Americans think about relationships in a unique way.

The power dynamic between discussions among students and those that involve a recognized instructor are significantly different. For example, the American mindset elevates the student-teacher (vertical) relationship within formal education to such a degree that peer-to-peer (horizontal) educational relationships are often viewed as helpful but non-essential additions.

Traditionally, we encourage horizontal educational relationships only where we assign group-work, rather than treating them as an expected norm within a typical education setting.

As teachers, we do this because horizontal relationships carry a greater risk of drifting off topic or having to wait for others to advance at different rates, which both waste time. American students also tend to avoid learning within a group of peers because it requires far more energy than simply receiving information from a master teacher, or even sparring with one.

These concerns are also inherent in a justice- (versus honor-) based culture. In a justice-oriented culture like the U.S., we take pride in our principles, namely, what we consider true, fair, factual, and efficient.

Americans tend to avoid or sacrifice relational obligations, such as honoring another person’s presence and interests before compromising on a commitment or a principle. For example, we may prioritize getting to a meeting on time (even 5 minutes early) over properly greeting and showing genuine interest in an acquaintance on the way to the meeting.

So how can we create an effective peer-to-peer digital learning environment?

Opportunities for Digital Discussion Groups

We can see how digital groups, forums, social communities, and collaborative applications provide attractive new contexts for group discussions. The challenge is to make these digital discussions as natural as possible to take advantage of patterned social behaviors.

Online forums, for example, allow asynchronous (not in real time) access to a discussion thread which allows students to quote and document the discussion. They are also less threatening for students who prefer not to generate immediate responses but want to take great care in their public discourse.

The primary challenge for a successful digital class forum is that, too often, students make a post to fulfill a requirement at the last minute. This is an unnatural way to engage in dialogue. Thus, students either have to quickly review and get up to speed on the conversation or risk taking the conversation off topic or worse, have nothing to say at all.

Faithlife groups (Faithlife.com) addresses this challenge by creating social discussion threads within digital books. This type of technology blends the passive experiences of reading or watching digital material with the active experiences of forum-like discussions.

So as students are reading their assigned texts, they can see questions from their instructor and peer-to-peer discussions in context. They are ready to jump in with their thoughts without any extra contextualization. It is far less likely for a student to drift off topic when they are anchored between the words or lines of a text.

When the discussion thread alerts students to further comments on their post, they are more likely to come back for further explanation or review to their contextualized discussion, which happens to live in a digital format. If we attach our digital social discussions to texts (especially reference material that we repeatedly return to), these relationships and discussions can live on and provide additional learning long after a particular course ends.

Our options for more natural (contextualized) digital discussions are quickly evolving. Ultimately, it’s our role as teachers and administrators to strengthen peer-to-peer relationships by connecting the digital discussions of students to the material they want to learn in a biblically and culturally relevant way, especially since it is their desire and expectation to do so as well.

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