If you’re looking for ways to boost active learning and meaningful discussion in your course, Ed Discussion is a powerful tool worth exploring. During a workshop hosted by ATS last quarter,  Borja Sotomayor, Senior Instructional Professor in the Department of Computer Science, Paul Essing from Ed Discussion, and staff from ATS offered valuable insights into leveraging the tool as a Q&A platform, discussion forum, and even micro-blogging site.

You can watch an edited video below, read the transcript, or continue reading below for insights.

Computer Science and STEM Use Cases

For computer science courses, Ed Discussion serves as an essential Q&A system, according to Borja Sotomayor. Students can get unstuck on coding assignments and problem sets by posting questions that instructors and TAs monitor and answer asynchronously. This provides faster support than waiting for office hours.

Sotomayor stressed the importance of training students to ask effective questions with proper context and error details. Knowing how to pose useful questions related to code is important not just for class, but is also a crucial skill programmers need to possess in industry. Sotomayor’s team uses detailed guidelines to help students understand how to frame good questions, creates “must read” FAQs for assignments, and enforces public (not private) questions about assignments to aid transparency for all students–not just those asking the questions.

Other key practices include:

  • Assigning TAs a schedule for answering questions
  • Using “saved replies” for common issues
  • Compiling “must read” posts of frequent questions per assignment
  • Encouraging anonymous questions over private ones
  • Activating the “Ed bat signal” on Slack as a call to instructional staff to review an influx of incoming questions

Applications Beyond STEM

Instructional designer Thomas Keith highlighted uses for Ed in humanities and social sciences, such as class discussions and blogs, collecting Q&A for summative assessments with “megathreads”, and runnable code for digital humanities and social sciences courses. For more, read Keith’s blog post “Beyond STEM: Ed Discussion for the Humanities and Social Sciences.”

Getting Students Engaged

A common challenge is motivating students to fully utilize Ed Discussion instead of solely relying on office hours for help outside of class. Clear guidelines, scaffolding, and making Ed the primary support channel help students adapt over the first few weeks of class.

Paul Essing from the Ed team recommends using thread templates to guide students in providing complete details when asking questions initially. For open-ended subjects, instructors may need to seed discussions by posting prompts.

New AI Functionality Coming Soon

Perhaps most exciting, Ed Discussion will soon offer AI “bots” that can, when approved by instructional staff, answer some questions using university-approved language models. This can significantly reduce staff workload while still allowing human instructors to oversee responses.

Essing noted this approach has been rolled out at Harvard and, while still in beta, is anticipated to be more broadly available soon.

A Flexible Discussion and Q&A Platform

Whether teaching STEM subjects, liberal arts, or anything in between, Ed Discussion offers powerful capabilities to foster active learning environments. By implementing smart strategies from experienced instructors, you can maximize Ed’s impact for your students.

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Further Resources and Getting Started