Digital Tools for Civil Discourse in the Classroom

by Kelli Van Wasshenova

Originally posted Oct. 23, 2020

Featured Video: EdTech Tip – Poll Everywhere

Election day is just over a week away. Many Denison faculty members have been having discussions with students about the current social and political climate in this country and many more will be doing so in the coming weeks. Below are some suggestions for how to use available digital tools in class discussions.


Use Google Docs to Establish Guidelines for Discussion

Google Docs are a useful tool to promote collaboration. One strategy to promote civil discourse in the classroom is to have students come up with guidelines for how to keep conversations civilized. With some of our students being off-campus this semester, we also have to keep in mind how to keep them involved in the conversations as well. Below are some tips and ideas about how Google Docs can be used for this type of collaboration.

  1. Getting Started: Create a document at and share it with your class by using the Share button in the top right corner. You can add student names so it is only available to those particular students. I would suggest also posting a link to the document in your class Notebowl page so they can easily find it.
  2. Consider using Suggesting Mode: Depending on how you structure the collaborative activity, you can tell students to use the suggestion mode instead of regular editing mode in Google Docs so that it tracks what everyone is saying. If you want to make sure they are using suggestion mode, you can do this by giving them commenter access rather than full editing access when you share the document with them. Once everyone agrees on the guidelines, you can accept all the suggestions.
  3. Sign it: Have students “sign” it by adding their names to the bottom. This gives them ownership of the guidelines and shows they agree to follow them.

Use Polling to Share Feedback

Use digital polling tools to allow students to give feedback on how they think the discussion or class is going. If you are using Zoom, there is a built-in polling option you can explore. (Here is a post on the CfLT Blog where Shiri Noy explains how she does this in her classes.) Another option is Poll Everywhere, which allows you to get immediate feedback from your students and share it back with this on the screen. It also has options for word clouds, which might be a helpful visual for students.

Check out this EdTech Tip on Poll Everywhere for step-by-step instructions.

  1. Visit and sign up for a free account.
  2. Create a group and then add activities to the group. Activities are the poll questions or prompts that will be displayed to your class. The free account includes 25 responses per activity. When you are configuring the activities, keep a few things in mind. If you are making a word cloud and make responses anonymous, there is no way for you to see who has posted what. You also cannot remove any responses. It might be a good idea to read over the words before sharing the screen.
  3. Share the poll responses with the class by sharing your screen with them. You can also send them a link so they can view the responses on their own.

Have students queue to speak using chat in Meet or Zoom

To allow everyone a chance to speak in order, tell them to put their names in the chat if they want to speak. This helps to keep students from interrupting or speaking over each other in the virtual classroom. It also helps students who are more timid have the chance to speak when it is their turn. Use this technique for hybrid classes as well. Tell even those in the physical room to type their names in chat OR nominate one student to moderate and type in names as hands are raised. This will give remote and on-campus students an equal chance to be heard.

Asynchronous Discussion Boards in Notebowl

Use Notebowl Discussion Boards to create a place for asynchronous discussion.

  1. In the assignments tab, click Add and then Assignment. Under Submission, choose Discussion Board as Submission Type. Setup the assignment as you normally would. For full details on how to create Notebowl Discussion Boards, see this resource.
  2. Participate in the discussion board with students. This allows students to see how you engage on the topics, so they have an example of appropriate civil discourse in an online setting.
  3. Have students share videos, photos, and articles from the web in these types of discussions.

Possible discussion board topic: Evaluating Sources. Have students find resources online related to political or social topics. Have them respond to each other’s posts and collaboratively evaluate their findings. Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) has this page on Evaluating Digital Sources. Contact Denison’s Library for additional support with source evaluation.

More Resources