Fueling student engagement in online discussions

Covid-19 has made classroom teaching more challenging than ever. How do we keep our students engaged in virtual and hybrid settings? How can teachers replicate some of the methods that we might have traditionally used in the classroom?

Using Inquiry in Virtual and Hybrid Settings

We all love classroom discussion, but how do we replicate a discussion in a virtual setting? Many of us are teaching virtually, and others are teaching a hybrid where some students are face to face and others are synchronous in a virtual setting. 

As an educator, I wanted to engage my students in critical thinking. I wanted my students to be able to talk in depth about a topic and be able to ask questions, evaluate the impacts of policies, and discuss issues related to our classroom topics. This is why one of my favorite teaching methods in the classroom involved the use of Socratic Seminars.

Socratic Seminars

Socratic Seminars involve the use of inquiry, as students ask questions and engage in discussion based on a reading. This method lends itself nicely to the types of inquiry advocated in the C3 Framework (see www.socialstudies.org/standards/c3). During discussion listening is an equally important component to speaking, as learners need to hear what their peers are saying in order to build off an idea, challenge what is said, or ask a question.

With the help of a fellow teacher who had shared his rubric for Socratic Seminars, I tweaked his ideas and included what our expectations were during discussion: asking questions, using the reading for evidence, and trying to bring others into the discussion were among those listed on my rubric.

As I was flung into pandemic teaching this year in a hybrid setting, I wanted to engage my students in these meaningful Socratic Seminars but struggled with what that might look like in a hybrid and virtual setting.

Image 1 – Screenshot of the Parlay Homepage


After some online searching, https://parlayideas.com/ was the platform I decided to try. Here are a few pros to using Parlay:

  • Teachers can try it for free 12 times before deciding if they like it enough to have their district purchase it for them. As a former 9-12  teacher, I’d never want to purchase something without trying it.
  • There are a lot of options within Parlay. For example, they have a synchronous discussion as well as an asynchronous option. The asynchronous option allows students to go to the site and participate with their peers – and there’s even an option to do this anonymously (which can be a nice option for certain topics)! 
  • There’s data! After a discussion ends, there’s a summary that appears that will show how many students participated, how many times they tapped in (wanted to participate), and how long they participated.
  • Rubrics are able to be entered in – they have templates or you can also customize your rubric. This is great to not send the rubric out separately but to have it embedded right on the website so that it is always in view.
  • For synchronous discussions, students are able to “tap in” (meaning they want to participate) and if there are multiple people who are interested, students are able to vote (by clicking the ear button next to their avatar) for who they would like to speak. This makes discussion more democratic, and students who perhaps might not jump into a live discussion right away are still able to be seen and heard.
  • Students can prep their answers on a notepad on the website to write down their thoughts on a question before they speak. This has the potential to help those students who are less likely to participate.
  • For those educators who just want to dip their toe in, they do have ready-made topics and questions available.
  • In addition to asking questions in the discussion, teachers can set up polls and direct students to answer them at any point in the discussion as another way of engagement or informal checks for understanding

One final pro that is worthy of more thought than a bullet point: no cameras are needed. On Twitter and other social media, educators are consumed with this question of students having their cameras off or on. In Parlay, it is stated that cameras off may help alleviate potential lag time. Through a platform such as Parlay, teachers don’t need to gauge student engagement by seeing if a learner has their camera on or off, as the engagement is audible via discussion. This has the potential to relieve some tension that students may feel about having their cameras on all of the time without feeling any potential guilt. We also know that many of our students may be multitasking and taking care of younger members of their household or sharing space with other family members – so not having cameras on does not make this front and center in our teaching.


After some thinking, I decided to split my large class of 30+ students into two groups, and for our live Parlay discussions we alternated topics. The decision to split the class was the right choice for our class, as reflected below in a student response. The listener group for a particular discussion did a reflection on our class Google Jamboard during and after our discussion. We completed 4 synchronous chats in each group along with 4 asynchronous discussions and one whole class synchronous chat.

Best feature comment captured from student evaluations of the course

To start a discussion, I shared my screen (via Zoom) to display the Parlay screen to show the different options for learners to click on  – new idea, challenge, build on, or question. Students “tap in” to the discussion circle and “tap out” to participate, and can vote for who will speak. Prior to our actual discussion, I provided a set of questions on our topic for students to answer. Moments before we began, I instructed my students to paste their notes into the notepad section on Parlay (which they copied over from a Google Doc and I supplied questions ahead of time). After this short introduction, we dove right into discussion.

Image 2 – Sample Screen of student tap in options: new ideas, challenge, build on, question

I set a goal of 100% participation (which was rare even in a traditional face to face setting) and was happy to achieve this during several of our discussions throughout the semester. After each discussion, there’s a summary button to click on to reveal data collected from Parlay. The first stat displayed shows the percent participation, followed by time spent tapped in. The screenshot below is from our last entire class Parlay discussion.

Screenshot from our last whole group discussion showing time tapped in per student

The next screenshot shows data for student tap-ins. Usually the number of tap-ins is higher per student, but this screenshot was taken from our entire class discussion of 30+ students rather than from our smaller groups. Our smaller group discussions had more tap-ins per student.

Screenshot showing some data from our last Parlay discussion

Student evaluations also revealed an appreciation for Parlay, with several students mentioning our discussions and specifically of Parlay in their course evaluations.

Best feature comment captured from student evaluations for the course
Best feature comment captured from student evaluations for the course

Reflecting back on this experience, there was far more participation from learners than even in my traditional face to face courses, and with the visuals presented in the discussion circle, I never worried about missing someone who wanted to participate. The features of having students vote for others to speak was very beneficial as helping others get involved in discussion, and it was also great that they could encourage one another with the use of fake confetti. Fake confetti might seem a bit trivial, but think of all the fun things teachers do in their rooms – I’ll take a little fake confetti.


Covid-19 has made teaching more challenging than ever before. Luckily, there are some electronic platforms available, such as www.parlayideas.com, that can help us replicate some of the teaching methods we might use with our students in a traditional classroom setting. While it may take some time and practice for educators to adjust, these platforms are vital in helping us connect and engage more with our learners. It’s vital that our students are still engaging in critical thinking and inquiry during this pandemic (and after) and it helps when there are programs available to support this type of teaching and learning.

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