eCoaching Tip 102 Teaching with Learning Partners and Open and Direct Discussion Forums

Sept 19 2012

eCoaching Tip 102:  Teaching with Learning Partners and Open and Direct Discussion Forums

This is eCoaching tip #102, part of a new series of tips for Duquesne’s School of Leadership and Professional Advancement. In this series faculty share their teaching stories and experiences, but perhaps more importantly, the practical strategies that they use to enrich their online courses. This tip combines two topics: teaching with “learning partners” and using an open and direct approach to facilitating discussion forums.

Guest Faculty

Our guest faculty, Robert W. Kubacki, is a conflict coach, organizational development consultant, and educator. Robert has been teaching with the School of Leadership since 2004. The story we will be exploring in this tip comes from Robert’s course MLLS 714-57 Conflict Resolution. Robert has two strategies that he finds works well. One strategy is for each student to self-select a learning partner who becomes his or her course buddy for the duration of the course. This action immediately creates support sub-units in the course community. As you will hear from Robert, this usually works well in building relationships and just having someone particular to talk to about assignments, readings, postings, and occasionally, life.

The other strategy that Robert uses and that he finds he is still fine-tuning is a strategy of open and direct discussion forums. In this approach learners are openly challenged, questioned and encouraged just as one would do in a face-to-face class. We will hear more from Robert as to how this strategy works and sometimes how it does not.

The Challenges of Teaching Conflict Resolution

This course, Conflict Resolution, has learning outcomes that require knowledge and integration of conflict theory with the practice of resolving personal and organizational conflicts. The first question that I asked Robert was how he achieves both the knowledge and the applied outcomes. I wanted to know what kinds of experiences he uses to help students develop this integrated knowledge and skill set.

Rationale behind Teaching Strategy

Before describing the course experiences Robert said that he first wanted to share the rationale behind his decisions. He said that his strategies are rooted in his belief that education needs to be theoretical while steeped in experiences. He noted that many courses combining theory with application depend on role plays and case studies. Over time, he has decided that learning experiences based on these types of experiences often feel quite “contrived” and “unreal.” For example, in using role plays he found that learners sometimes get lost in the playing of a role and lose sight of the goals of the learning experience.

Rather than using created case studies, Robert takes his student through a process of discovering and identifying conflicts they have experienced through their lives, but in a process that does not judge or critique these conflicts. The last part of the process is to identify a conflict that they are willing to share in a public forum through the course. The conflict must meet the criteria of conflicts as described in the work of Wilmot and Hocker(2000).

A second belief that Robert shared is based on his experiences as a transformative mediator. The belief is what happens in the classroom is as much a part of the learning experience as the material students are reading. For example, Robert will make public in the discussion forum any and all comments made by students in the mid-course survey.  He uses that survey to both give students a voice as well as to demonstrate transparency.

Learning Partners

A tip (#92) from last fall focused on the community building power of groups of two or three students. Robert uses teams of two called learning partners throughout his course because he believes that it is “easier to do a journey with a partner than by yourself.” How does he do this? Students self-select learning partners in the pre-week and post their learning partner in a special forum. If students delay making a choice, sometimes the universe chooses one for them, and it is just the “universe’s way of saying this is who you are going to be working with and learning from.”

As a way of getting to know each other and as a way of introducing the conflict content, students interview their learning partner about their best conflict experience. The students conduct the interviews in week 1 or 2.  In week 4, they post a summary of their interview, identifying skills their partner used as well what they learned as interviewers.

This early learning experience with their learning partner provides that important “voice”, an important ingredient in helping the students get to know each other. Their learning partner immediately becomes at least one person with whom they are linked and can be the person to whom they respond and dialogue with on the discussion forum.

The questions for this initial “best part of a conflict experience” are based on David Cooperrider’s appreciative inquiry model (Stevenson, 2011) that focuses on appreciating and valuing the best in even unpleasant experiences while envisioning what could or might be.

In his weekly commentary — “Robert’s Ruminations” — for week 1, Robert asks his learners to reflect on the partnering process, whether they were a pursuer, initiator, reactor, or defaulter. Robert suggests that this can inform the learner in how he or she might engage in conflict while integrating course experience with the content. Part of the course environment is a term “course-mate” that Robert has coined. He tries to create the sense of community by emphasizing that he is the teacher-student and they are student-teachers and as in any learning oriented community, all learn from each other.

The Value and Power of Learning Partners

At this point I asked Robert to give an example of how learning partners support process, projects or the learning of core knowledge. Here is an example centered on the learner’s conflict project.

As described earlier, the course design leads students to a point of identifying a conflict experience of their own that they will share and analyze with the course community. In week 2 students submit as Paper 1 their conflict story that will be the focus of the project analysis. The paper is a rich and as complete telling of the story as possible including quotations and dialogue. The close to the paper is the student’s answer to the question; “How do you see the story?”  This initial analysis becomes the student’s baseline perspective of both the conflict and their informed theoretical understanding of it. This conflict story mines the personal knowledge of an experience that has an emotional and visceral richness that someone else’s case study cannot begin to replicate. Additionally these stories are then summarized in the next week’s discussion forum and available for every student in the course to read. This brings the theory alive in real situations that, shared with learning partners and other students in the course, often result in very supportive and empathic posts.  Robert then added, “When that happens, you have magic and students are teaching each other.”

Here is another example of how the learning partners work. Towards the end of the course an “appreciation forum” asks the learners to identify one person in the course to whom they want to show appreciation, using Marshall Rosenberg’s (2004) model of Nonviolent Communication.  Students often select their learning partners and through these appreciation posts it becomes obvious that many learning partners developed a rich and robust supportive relationship that helped and guided them throughout the course.

Open and Discussion Forums – Ways of Being Present

Discussion forums are places where learners discuss, engage, and think openly about course content and hopefully grow in knowledge and understanding. These forums are the means, the spaces where a supportive and knowledgeable community develops. Yet creating and facilitating meaningful dialogue is not easy. Each group of students has their own personality, their own character, and their own spirit.

Over the years of online learning evolution, online faculty have developed different ways of being present on the discussion forum. Robert’s approach to being present is open and direct, posting challenges, questions and corrections in the public forum.  Why does Robert choose this way of facilitating the forums?  How is he ‘present” in the discussion forum?  How do students react?

As to the first question, Robert’s training as a lawyer means he has a deep respect and value for how to think critically and to support opinions with logic and evidence. Early in the course he references the Foundation for Critical Thinking website and references two articles from that site for students to read. The course expectation — that the thinking in the discussion forum needs to follow those principles and practices — is explicitly stated in the syllabus in several places. If students express vague opinions that are not supported by logic or evidence, he queries and challenges those statements.  As Robert notes, not all students are ready for that type of learning. Some students react with excitement and pleasure that they are really being encouraged to think clearly and well; other students react with annoyance and sometimes embarrassment. Part of what Robert tries to do is to match his responses, engagement and interaction to where students are at the moment and then to gently mentor, challenge, and “grow” them to where they might become critical thinkers and leaders.

As a general rule, Robert engages with learners online for content-oriented questions, while engaging them via email if insights are more personal.  He notes that the biggest challenge with his style is that students initially think that when he is questioning and challenging a learner that he is only having a private conversation with “Sally” rather than creating an open space and conversation for all to be part of.  The process is not always smooth; yet it is the goal to be strived for.  As students take a second course with this type of style, hopefully they are ready for this type of engagement.

In summary of how he is present, Roberts concludes, “For me presence is modeling.”

Helpful Hint for Colleagues

As our conversation came to a close, I asked Robert if he had a helpful hint or tip that he likes to share with fellow online faculty, and he said that he likes to encourage others to “Be yourself” while teaching.  He believes that what we do online is very challenging, but it is important to believe in the process and trust yourself and what you bring to the class.

Exploring Further on Enhancing Discussions

As we explore various strategies and tools for enhancing learning in the discussion forums, you might enjoy a workshop handout from Brookfield and Preskill, authors of Discussion as a way of Teaching (2005). This document has a wide-ranging collection of ideas and approaches for lively and engaging discussions. While coming from a face-to-face environment, many strategies have possibilities for online forums.


Boettcher, J. V. (2011)  E-Coaching Tip 92 Collaborating with Groups of Two or Three – Moving beyond the Discussion Board.Retrieved from SLPA Faculty Webinars 2012-2013 site under the ecoaching tips menu item.

Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. N. (2005). Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kubacki, R., Lyon, A., Valent, J., and Wallace, S. Tips to Give Your Students to Succeed in Online Learning. Retrieved September 13 2012 from

Rosenberg, M. (2000) Nonviolent Communication; A Language of Life. 2nd Edition, Puddle Dancer Press. Retrieved workshop handout on Sept 13 2012 from

Stevenson, H. (2011). Appreciative Inquiry: Tapping into the River of Possibilities.  A nice summary of appreciative inquiry. Retrieved Sept 13 2012, from

Wilmot, W. and Hocker, J. (2001) Interpersonal Conflict, 7th Edition, McGraw Hill.

Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2016  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by

Copyright by Judith V. Boettcher