A Better Discussion

I have been applying a technique to online discussion this semester that I have been very happy with, and I’ve been telling people about it. Discussion has been for a long time the unhappy weak spot in all my classes. I would create a discussion conference (Blackboard) or forum (Moodle) each week, with either questions to discuss or topics to work with. I tried to post a variety of topics so that the students would have options and would be able to discuss, rather than just post the same answer over and over. I required two posts per week, the first post by Wednesday midnight, and a second post replying to another student, by Sunday midnight.

In Blackboard, the limited threaded format caused serious boredom on my part. Every discussion every week in every class looked the same, my conference followed by nested links. I either had to click on each one to follow the topics, or “collect” them to read them all, but even sorting by date I couldn’t see who was replying to whom and it was all text and …. boring, boring, difficult and boring. So I wouldn’t go in that much because with forty students per class it was overwhelming, so I didn’t catch all the arguments and flaming, and when I went in to post myself to lead the discussion in a different direction, my own posts mixed in with all the others and were ignored, even when I started using an asterisk in the subject line so they would see it was me. Yuck. Partcipation would decline, and they weren’t really talking to each other anyway.

So I did some research. I read Facilitating Online Learning: Effective Strategies for Moderators by George Collison, Bonnie Elbaum, Sarah Haavind, Robert Tinker (Atwood Publishing 2000). The book had lots of great ideas, as you can see in my summary. I chose the role of “Leader of a Group Process” and posted a “tickler” on a single thread for each week (an idea I got from an article).

So for the week we study The West (my guinea pigs were US history students), I found a video clip from Edison labs of Native Americans from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. They are doing the Ghost Dance. All I asked was “What issues from this unit come to mind?”

From Sunday to Wednesday, I let them answer however they wanted. I notice over the past decade a tendency for college students to emphasize the affective aspects of their existence (how they “feel” about things, rather than rational thought). For this topic, students responded with pity (or callousness) — either way they were disturbed by the clip, which is what I intended. I let them wallow in affective areas till Thursday, when I posted. I summarized what they had said, freely quoting from their own posts, then guided the discussion toward a topic of historical perception and victimization. That let them know that:

1. I had read their posts and cared about what they said

2. I was guiding the discussion in a direction based on their own comments

3. the affective concerns would now be deepened into historical analysis

Because I was in Moodle, I could see all the posts on one screen, and made mine bold text, titling it “Take discussion from here, please”. Most did, replying to my summary/guidance post.

This technique has gotten me everything I want. I only go in to each discussion a couple of times per week, I can see the whole thing in one glance, I am getting faster at creating the summary with the quotes, and the discussion is deepening to the desired level at the end of each week. Participation levels are high. I’ve decided I prefer depth in discussion to breadth, especially since I wasn’t getting breadth anyway, and early student evaluations say they are happy.

Note: One student dropped the class early on. I emailed and asked if her dropping had anything to do with my class. She wrote back saying yes, she felt I was teaching us all to pity the Indians, and she didn’t come to college for that crap. (She had only seen the first part of the discussion.) I explained to her my entire pedagogy, including the affective aspects and my goal for analysis. She changed her mind and returned, and is now helping guide the discussion. There may be a lesson here for revealing ones pedagogical goals!

3 comments to A Better Discussion

  • Eduardo Peirano

    Great post. I have featured your post: A Better Discussion, http://lisahistory.net/wordpress/?p=35in
    in my blog: A Better Discussion: Flat or Threaded Forum ?, http://onlinesapiens.com/blog/2007/05/18/a-better-discussion-flat-or-threaded-forum/
    I always hated the threaded forums. I very much prefer the flat type forums.

  • Great explanation of what you did and why you did it. This is very helpful to me in thinking about LMSs too. We’re reviewing some of the different choices now, so this gives me something else to look for.

    Our facilitators are encouraged to use “weaving posts” where they bring together all the ideas from students like you describe. It’s actually part of their training before they can teach any of the online courses. You seemed to take it a step further with how you redirected the discussion to a deeper topic though.

  • A Student's Perspective

    Why do people take online classes to begin with? Because of family/work time constraints usually: To learn what is assigned during that week/month/module when he or she has TIME to do it, on his or her schedule. The goal: learn, meet the objectives by the pre-determined end of the week day, right? Wrong. Enter DAY-OF-THE-WEEK-GRADED online discussion boards. I wish someone somewhere out there amongst all of those PhDs would explain how someone who only has two days a week be in college online can accurately be judged for what he learned and if he has met the course objectives when you are grading based upon whether he submitted discussion post by 11:59 PM on Wednesday, which (at my college) is not even half-way through the week. Give me a break. This is busy work. We are adults. We don’t need required communication with others students. It is like telling me, “Now, Johnny, you are going to sit here and talk to Jim about this week’s lesson and I’m going to grade you on what you say, even though you haven’t read any of the material yet, just BS your way through it and make me happy, because you know if you don’t talk to him right now when I say you have to about it, you will not receive full credit as if you actually read and learned the material.” We have learning objectives, we learn, we meet them, we move on to the next one. Having to spend 10 hours a week on a freaking message board yacking about stuff that I haven’t had time to read yet or with people who just say the same crap over and over and agree and disagree with the few that actually post real information is just taking away from the time I need to actually do my reading and assignments. I also have a choice to not get full credit for this stupid yacking and actually learn what I’m supposed to learn when I have time to learn it. I’ll blow all the yackers away come test time or time to compose a paper about the material because they spent their whole week appearing as if they were learning something instead of with their head buried in books learning it. It’s the most ridiculous piece of bureaucratic BS I’ve ever seen. You get a bunch of “scholarly” researchers together and sure! You look hard enough you will find the research to back up your busy-work requirement. Meanwhile, the real students out there that are paying three times as much as they would in a face-to-face classroom are having to spend their time NOT learning but yacking incessantly with morons because the professor requires it. And we pay you for this?