Question #1: How would you implement online discussions in your course?
Question #2: To help students become involved in an online course, what should be included in the syllabus to help guide the students toward active/successful participation?
Here is my (partial) response:
Well, before I get to my answers, I think it may help a little to give you my background so you'll have insight into how I got here.
I feel like a kid here at the university (I'm only 41), but all through grad school all of my research was in online learning. As a master's student I was selected to design and teach the first fully online course in the state of Utah. Also while a grad student I helped design the Syllabase online course delivery system (a precursor to products like D2L). I've probably either designed or taught almost 30 different online course during my career (I worked in faculty development at my last school--much like H. and K. here). My Ph.D. is in instructional design--specifically focused in this area. So if there is ANY WAY to screw up an online course, I'll be I've done it at least twice . . .. I put all this on the table because I find this stuff VERY interesting. I'm taking the course here to help myself be better, and to hopefully share some of what I've learned. So you can take all of this with a grain of salt, but here are my answers . . .
2) As I stated in my response to someone else, "participation" in an online course is a HORRIBLE criteria. It's extremely difficult to measure effectively, and it's very subjective. Some will think they participated well, and other's simply won't care. What you have to do is structure the assignments so that you take "participation" out of the equation when it comes to assessment. Either they did the assignments, or they didn't. There are plenty of ways to make sure that learners do this. I'm not a fan of counting posts. BOOOOO! There are actually a lot of published rubrics that evaluate the content of a post rather than the number. Think about it. Would you rather have a student in your face to face class who talked constantly (online: posts all the time), or would you rather have one who inputs meaningfully into the discussion, even if it is only one comment? I'll take meaningful discussion anytime. The trick is not letting your students get away with meaningless posts. I find when I teach online I spend a lot of time responding to students saying things like: "Do you really mean that?" or "Is that what you really want to say?" See, students, if they think they can get away without having to back up their comments, will say anything. In a f2f class, we'll question them and press them for follow up. It's harder and more time consuming to do in an online format, but I'd argue it's almost MORE important to do. So long story short (too late!) I never grade "participation" as a criteria.
As for what needs to be in the syllabus? DETAIL, DETAIL, DETAIL. You have to spell it out, brother!