By Doreen Fisher-Bammer

For millennia, the Socratic method has been a pillar of effective, engaging classroom discussion. Rooted in sparking thoughtful dialogue among learners, it has been touted as the type of “authentic learning” that may help higher education recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Many instructors feel apprehensive about creating effective discussions in this radically changed environment. If designed intentionally and implemented thoughtfully, technology can play a role in facilitating more effective discussion than face-to-face classes.

Faculty and students alike tend to think of online discussion forums as not just time-consuming, but boring. In the words of WestEd’s Cameron Sublett, the pandemic may lead instructors to “populate their LMS [learning management system] shells with asynchronous online discussion forums and have time and resources for little else. The consequence will almost certainly be decreased learning and increased inequity.”

Regardless of student and instructor misgivings, the prospect of remote learning as the new normal is beginning to sink in. While students may have given their schools leeway during the hectic spring 2020 semester, they now expect a high-quality experience. If we remain confined to the Zoom classrooms and stilted forums that characterized the first few months of the pandemic, won’t that spell doom for any meaningful class discussion? That may not be the case.

To be sure, the COVID-19 crisis will continue to reshape the landscape of higher education, but online class does not mean that effective discussion is impossible. Emerging approaches to technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), rooted in core academic concepts like inquiry-based learning and self-determination theory, have helped students at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, overcome fears surrounding the online classroom.

The reality is that in many cases, face-to-face discussion can be a challenging way for students to engage. The classic scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a reality for many instructors, who find that students are often reluctant to share untested ideas in a public forum. It can take time to think of a good question, and many classes have evolved to do everything in their power to avoid the all-too-frequent awkward pause. Furthermore, research indicates that implicit biases may prevent women and Black students from speaking up, allowing their White male peers to dominate the discussion experience.

While higher education pundits often talk about technology as the great destroyer of face-to-face interaction, HACC has applied AI in ways that enhance classroom discussion. Asynchronous discussions that don’t require an answer right away can be a means to facilitate deeper, more meaningful conversation – with the right tools to encourage students to make the most of that extra time. AI-powered platforms help by providing students real-time feedback that clarifies their thinking. For instance, Packback’s “curiosity score” motivates students to ask tougher questions and find more compelling sources to back up their answers. The instantaneous nature of AI-based feedback can be less stressful for students, and can help flag issues like plagiarism and inappropriate language that are time-consuming to address in a traditional LMS. While AI may not be a substitute for feedback from instructors, it can provide regular and reliable responses to students in ways that are often just not feasible for an instructor to scale alone.

Research suggests that these tools are making an impact. Study results in a forthcoming report indicate that HACC students who used an AI-enabled discussion platform were twice as likely to post and five times more likely to cite sources. We’ve also seen improved academic outcomes and increased retention of key concepts in classes where AI is implemented.

Perhaps most impactful are the stories from students and instructors. At first, I was surprised to hear so many of them talk about the community that they were able to create and foster through online discussion. Now, though, I hear almost every week from students and faculty who have found their voices and helped their peers see challenging issues in new ways. As one HACC student put it, the platform we use “enables us to come up with answers we wouldn’t have been able to come up with just reading the textbook….we’re collectively working together to make the discussion as interesting as possible.”

Realizing the potential of online discussion has become even more important in the wake of COVID-19. Technology in the classroom was once a nice-to-have – now, it is an absolute must. Building an infrastructure for effective discussion has enabled HACC faculty to keep leading productive conversations even as more faculty begin teaching remotely. It is also more critical than ever to create open dialogue that elevates the contributions of all students, at a time when the national discourse is focused on the many voices that are being silenced.

In higher education, we often talk about technology as something that dehumanizes the classroom experience. But across classes at HACC, we’ve seen technology light the spark of curiosity among our students and play the role of a 21st-century Socrates.

Doreen Fisher-Bammer, Ed.D., is associate provost of Virtual Learning at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College.

For more than 50 years, the League for Innovation in the Community College (League) has focused on promoting and celebrating innovation at the institutions we serve. The idea for the organization grew from B. Lamar Johnson’s research in the 1960s on faculty services in community colleges. A Professor of Education and Director of the Junior College Leadership Program at UCLA, Johnson identified “islands of innovation,” exceptional and isolated practices found in single departments or developed by individual staff members, in community colleges across the U.S. He noted in his 1964 report that there was “significantly less experimentation than would be expected, or certainly hoped for, in an institution which is often referred to as ‘the most dynamic unit of American education.’”*

Four years later, the League was founded to encourage innovation and experimentation in all areas of community college operations. Since then, through conferences, seminars, awards, projects, publications, and partnerships, the League has facilitated, showcased, and celebrated innovative practices at community colleges, career and technical institutes, and other postsecondary education institutions. With its mission to cultivate innovation in these institutions, the League remains dedicated to helping colleges expand innovation beyond the islands that Johnson wrote about decades ago.

In this blog, we’ll explore what we have learned and are still learning about innovation. Along with posts from thought leaders in and out of higher education, we’ll include updates and lessons learned from League projects and initiatives. Among these are current programs such as Innovative Solutions for Hunger Relief and Student Success, COVID-19: The Ultimate Public Health Challenge, and efforts focused on connecting students and job seekers with training programs and employers in high-demand fields.

We’d also like to hear from you, so let us know about the issues and challenges you’re facing, the innovative approaches you are using to work through them, and the lessons you and your colleagues are learning along the way. Your insight and input will help to build a community of innovators and leaders and strengthen connections among community colleges.

*Johnson, B. L. (1964). Islands of innovation: A report of an exploratory survey of the utilization of junior college faculty services. Occasional Report Number 6, Junior College Leadership Program, School of Education. University of California, Los Angeles (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED012605).