Facilitating Online Discussions: Diane McKay

Assistant Professor, Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition and Scientist, Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging

Nutritional Science professor Diane McKay incorporates productive online discussions across all teaching modalities: face-to-face, online, and hybrid.

“Engaging in online discussions…gives these social science students an opportunity to participate in a discussion without having to take up class time”

Diane McKay shares her approach to teaching and reflects on lessons learned.

Teaching Context

McKay began teaching in the Friedman School’s Distance learning program in fall 2008 and currently conducts two of her five courses, Fundamentals of Nutrition Science and General Nutrition, in a fully online format. In addition to her online courses, McKay teaches two undergraduate and one graduate level course in a face-to-face modality for students here at Tufts.

Over the past two years, McKay has transformed a face-to-face course into an online format and is now re-transforming the same course back into a face-to-face format for graduate students in Boston. In the process, she says she’s learned a lot about the difference between the role of the instructor in hybrid teaching vs. face-to-face teaching and is now looking for ways to incorporate her insights into a revised and improved teaching approach.

Motivation and Goals

The impetus for transforming her graduate courses into an online format came about when Mckay was hired to teach in Friedman’s online master’s degree in Nutrition Science and Policy. Officially referred to as the Ras Al Khaimah UAE MNSP, the program is a one-year academic degree consisting of eight courses and a thesis conducted in three 13-week terms. Her primary goal in transforming her course to an online format was to provide a comparable graduate level offering for students studying remotely in the UAE. “These courses are designed to help students learn the language of nutrition and give them all the necessary background to pursue further studies in the field, so it’s important that students have equal exposure to the material through the online environment,” she notes.


There are many things McKay says she needed to adjust in transforming her course to a distance learning format. One of the most significant has been her use of class discussions. “Because students are not working together in person, the only opportunity for them to interact revolves around the online discussion board, which as many instructors will tell you, can be a challenge to get students to use,” she observes.

Her most successful use of the discussion board to date has been incorporating it into an assignment where students compare and contrast different diets. In the assignment, students choose one diet from a list of diets provided and present it to their peers. Using the discussion board, they post one positive and one negative aspect of the diet and also reply to the posting of their peers. Ultimately, students vote on the best and worst diets and explain the rationale behind their choices. McKay says the assignment has not only gotten students to interact with each other online but has also forced them to understand and evaluate the content with a more critical eye than they would have otherwise.

Another way in which McKay is making innovative use of a discussion board is through allowing students to post anonymous questions. Students are often embarrassed to ask questions online, she says, so providing a forum for them to ask and answer each others’ questions fosters a more cooperative learning environment. Students who post helpful responses (and identify themselves) are given extra credit as an incentive to help their classmates.

Tips for Teaching
1) Cover more material by using discussion board exercises to introduce what might have been lecture content. Rather than delivering a lecture on dietary supplements, for instance, she says she now posts information and opinions about supplements to the discussion forum and asks students to read the information and provide a coherent argument about whether supplements are good or bad and why. This can deepen additional conversation in class on the same topic, and is also effective in ensuring that students are prepared for class.

2) Invite students to contribute timely content they’re encountering out in the world, when possible.Recently, McKay began encouraging students to post relevant articles on nutrition and science from sources such as the New York Times and to discuss the material with their peers in the discussion forum, a way of engaging with real world content and simultaneously reinforcing the concepts students are studying. In an online discussion, these can be incorporated directly into the subject matter without waiting for the next class meeting to take place. In class, they can provide a higher level of student engagement in the discussion.

3) Tape some of your lectures and post them. Taping lectures gives you the opportunity to package content in a way that’s more polished and consistent than is usually possible in a face-to-face lecture. Doing so can free up class time, allowing for deeper discussion.

4) View your role as a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage” and ask students to help take ownership of their own knowledge creation.

Lessons Learned (reflection)

Making the switch from face-to-face teaching to online teaching and back again has given McKay a great deal of insight into her role as a teacher. “Having to move from being a “sage on the stage” to a “guide on the side” has changed my approach to teaching,” she says. It has also given her a well-developed sense of what works and what doesn’t in different contexts and made her inquisitive about adapting ideas from one context into the other. She says “”Engaging in these online discussion gave me the skills to be able to facilitate discussion within my face to face class.” While online teaching has informed the way she approaches her face-to-face classes, she appreciates the value of both contexts and says she would never wish to teach just face-to-face or just online again.

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