Why discussion sucks (and what to do about it)

Students at colleges around the country are told to participate, but why?

Since the dawn of online classes, the goal of college professors has been to somehow duplicate the excitement of classroom discussion. With the advent of the Read-Write Web (Web 2.0) fifteen years ago, the threaded discussion forum became popular, and immediately the pattern was set.

We do what we’ve been told to do: create a great prompt, not a yes-no question or something too shallow. We want everyone to respond to it, reinforcing readings or other learning in the class. Then, because we want student-student interaction, each student is required to reply to at least two of their colleagues. The prompt-post-reply model has held.

Never mind that this is not the way discussion happens in a classroom. There may be a prompt thrown out by the professor, but only a few students answer, and only if their answers can be different. We might set up small groups to get students to talk, but if we’re experienced we know better than to just say “discuss”. And we usually intervene to advance the discussion or take it in another direction.

Never mind that we haven’t bothered to ask why we’re doing online discussion at all. It’s discussion. You’re supposed to do it. Or you have to do something. Many colleges require “student to student interaction” for all online classes. But no one explains why. It’s just assumed to be a Good Thing.

And yet the result is often appalling.

The problem

Most online discussions are absolutely worthless to read (from an instructor perspective) and worthless to do (from a student perspective). The eager students answer the questions first and fully. The others trail along just to finish and get the points. Every student knows the drill: post once, reply twice. Then leave as quickly as you can and do not return.

If the prompt is a question, however intricate, or a specific task (“post your thesis”), then once their first post is done, the student’s task has been completed. The only reason to reply to anyone else’s post is because the prof told you to. That’s not interaction. It’s mandatory politeness, like saying “how are you?” when you don’t really care.

“I agree, James,” they write, “I also think that slavery was bad.” Nothing really happening there mentally, I don’t think. And James likely won’t return to see the reply anyway. Why should he?

A twist on traditional discussion

I went as far as I could with the method, in an effort to increase participation. I achieved discussion somewhat successfully with my two-step approach. This involved starting with a prompt that did not require previous knowledge, and set up some kind of moral judgement to get people engaged. Questions like “was it right to drop the bomb on Hiroshima?” or “did the Confederacy have a point about states rights?” or “was slavery essential to the growth of the United States?” got students started.

After they had all emoted about the topic for the first half of the week, I posted “Take discussion from here”. I used big font and a color for my post, and it summarized what they’d said so far, naming names of students who had made good points. Then I asked different questions that seemed to follow from what they’d said, questions that relied on their reading and used reason (rather than emotion) to deal with the main issues. Their second post was a reply to mine and/or to each other, to conclude that week.

It worked, in a way. But many students, having given ill-informed opinions to start, didn’t bother to return for the real work in the second half.

Designing for necessity

Sometimes, there’s simply no need for conversation. You read (or look, or listen), you do the work, and you’re done. Discussion should only take place when it is necessary, whether in the classroom or online. There are two things that can make discussion necessary:

  1. If talking together is essential to work something out or to complete a task.
  2. If the product of the conversation is going to be used, applied, or figured out.

So we could design for necessity. Let’s say I’m teaching design, and I demand on the discussion board that each student design and post a different carnival ride. Once they have posted, they seem to have finished the task. There could be no reason to ask them to comment on two other students’ designs. But if the next task is to write a short paper contrasting three designs (yours and those of two other students), then the comments become preparatory for creating something.

Or we could do role play. The class is to be considered a committee-as-a-whole for determining which route across campus would be best for the architects to create as a footpath. What information should be gathered, and how? Once results have come in, how will the data inform the decision? The deadline is Thursday, because the architects need to break ground.

Or let’s take my two-step discussion technique, where I start with something ill-informed and emotional, and then we get informed in the second step. I could have made it better by making sure that the discussion was used somehow, through a formal assignment such as a paper or quiz. The conclusions we developed could have been summarized and used to inform individual work.

The rules

So my new rules for discussion would be:

  1. ensure that conversation is inherently necessary to the task or subject
  2. design so that each student would naturally post something different
  3. create something that applies or uses the results of the discussion

Otherwise, I’d say there’s no point.

Discuss.

It Never Goes Back the Way it Was Before

I hear people say things like “when things go back to normal” or “after the pandemic” or just “afterwards”.

That might have worked for something that lasted a few weeks. Or for a hurricane or fire that destroys your home, then you have to rebuild. We can’t do that yet — this is the classic slow-motion train wreck. And anyone who’s rebuilt, had tragedy strike, knows that nothing is ever the same again.

Because we cannot go backward. Trust me on this — I’m a historian. I know backward. We only go forward.

The articles talking about the way in which the pandemic is changing business, or is changing the way we do things, are closer to the mark than the ones talking about going back to the way things were before. Will we have a time when we shake hands again, and hug our grandchildren? Very likely. Will we ever shake hands the same way again, not thinking anything of it? No.

Even when we’re not actively afraid anymore, we will be more aware. More aware of how quickly things can change, how people can treat each other differently, suddenly. How protestors can take to the streets even when they might get infected. How people can lose their jobs, lots and lots of jobs. How government support can happen, and how it can disappear. How the economy is based on the spending of extra cash. How people can be treated like disposable commodities. How those without money are exposed to danger. How science cannot stand against unreasoned anger.

We already watch old movies, or at least I do, and think, “they’re not wearing masks”. It will still jar us later. We’ll tell our grandchildren, we learned to smile differently then. With our eyes. We waved more with our hands. We learned to speak more clearly.

The international embarrassment will take years to fade. Luckily, Americans have dealt with this before. A number of our military operations have been embarrassing, for example. But the usual admiration for our brashness and our money won’t hold up as well this time. American brashness is killing people, a lot of people. Our money has failed to provide even a minimum number of virus testing kits for us, much less the world.

So let’s not make assumptions about the After Times yet. Let’s focus on now a bit more. What are we gaining now, and what are we losing? How can we help others? How can we support people in trouble? Shouldn’t people with a lot be providing for those with less?

This summer the best web browser ever, Cliqz, closed down. The German designers made it as a model for open source browsers that protect privacy and operate quickly. They intended European countries to adopt it with public support. But the pandemic, they said, had left no room to even talk about a browser for the people. Everyone is focusing on Covid.

Well if that’s the case, if that’s what we’re doing, perhaps we could do a better job of it. Fight the fires, but also do some introspection. And some planning. And some spending. Heal some rifts. And start getting it right. Because there really is no going back.