A really good start

Every semester I encourage students to start their online class by posting in the forum (variably called the Pub, or Coffee House, or Taverna, depending on the class). I usually ask them to do a couple of things, like update their Profile, take a distance ed readiness quiz, and introduce themselves. Although I encourage them to reply to each other and make connections, I always have classes where it’s all left-justified responses to my post – they don’t talk to each other.

This semester is totally different – they’re all talking about what it’s like to take an online class, and what their hopes are for this one, and how they’re getting organized to stay on track (not staying on track is, to my mind, the #1 reason for failure in online classes).

What made the difference? Well, I made a video about the class, but I’ve done that before. No, I’m convinced it was putting this video, usually just a link for the class, embedded right there in the forum.

I’m guessing that they “see themselves” in the video, students like themselves. They watch it because it’s right there at the start of the class, inside the discussion, right at the top.

The video is patched together from last year’s extra credit assignment, where I asked students to make a video clip with advice for new online MiraCosta students. I graded them higher if they filmed on campus and offered a really good tip. They had to give me permission to use their video publicly. Then I just edited and uploaded to YouTube.

It will be interesting to see how things go from here. Will they talk more in the posting forums, where discussion is not required? I don’t even have a grade for discussion or contribution this semester. Will they stay motivated? Will they stay enrolled? Let’s find out.

Whose discussion? (my 500th post)

For years, I didn’t have a “discussion” in my online classes. When I changed the discussion forum to a workspace, a place for students to post primary sources to support their writing, I didn’t miss the “I agree” posts or the obvious display of ignorance intended to pad a certain number of posts a week.

What started cropping up, though, were bits of discussion. A reply to a primary source, or to a writing assignment, because a student was particularly moved or related to the subject. And there didn’t seem to be enough opportunity to discuss issues in history, controversies and interesting perspectives that weren’t covered in the material. Plus, it was clear to me that the students had too many writing assignments. I was asking for them weekly, not very big assignments, but because they were scaffolded they required a lot of grading and feedback. That was hard to do with so many students, and they were getting bored with the work even if I wasn’t getting bored reading them.

So last summer, where the 16-week class is compressed to 8 weeks anyway, I had the students writing weekly, but there was also a discussion. I assigned students to groups randomly once the enrollment settled down. Then I made simple instructions, and modeled by leading the first discussions myself.



In the third week or so, I posted the student-led discussion forums, with instructions like this:

Grading was just rolled into the Contribution Assessment grade at mid-term and at the end of the class.

The result was excellent last summer, so I decided to keep it going this year. I model the first two discussions with questions and ongoing participation, then the groups are supposed to take over. This semester has been very different from last summer, however. A couple of groups had to be contacted to remind them to start discussion. One student wrote me complaining that another student had plagiarized his discussion question off of an educational website instead of creating his own. Now in Week 12, the discussion participants are fewer in every class.

So what’s different?

1. The instructions are a little more specific.
Last summer I was pretty vague, and didn’t insist that they connect topics to lecture or readings. While I added this to bring the focus onto the course materials, it may have stifled some freedom.

2. The discussions are every other week in the 16-week format.
This may have encouraged lost attention and boredom over time. A shorter, compressed format seems to keep focus better in general. This may be a good argument for 8-week classes.

3. The Contribution Assessment happened only once.
I was doing a mid-term and end-of-term assessment, but dropped the latter because the point of it was to help students recognize and improve their performance, and it’s too late to do that at the end of the class. But I may have gotten rid of a stick/carrot motivation for participating in discussion during the last half of the semester.

4. The students are different.
Last summer I had one Western Civ class full of university students, and one US History class full of typical community college students. At the start of the term, the university students were gung-ho, then they faded. The community college students’ behavior was reversed — they started slowly and gradually became more engaged. So I assumed that I would see similar patterns. But in all of this term’s five sections, there is just one pattern — about a dozen particular students are really into discussion, and the others are just posting to post. I can tell because they don’t reply to each others’ posts, just to my prompt.

So what to do for this summer? I think I should keep the format. But for next fall? Should I create my own discussions? Drop them again? Gotta think on this one.



That Community Thing

I’ve studied some about creating community in online classes, and we’re working on the topic this week in the POT Cert Class. And yet, I don’t do it. Create community, I mean, as an instructor.

Unlike in many online classes, my discussion forums are not set up for discussion. I do have a number of posts required, but each post has a purpose: one is for posting a primary source, the second one for responding to my guidance with a thesis and mini-essay, and a third to help someone else. I do not provide conversation prompts because my goal is not conversation.

However, in the very first forum, where I ask them to introduce themselves, either community forms or it doesn’t. And it stays that way the whole semester.

If, in the first forum, the first few students posting begin by responding to other students in a chatty and friendly way, instead of just introducing themselves and leaving, the others follow suit and the class takes off and community forms quickly. Participation and conversation levels remain high throughout the class, even in all the other forums where only posting their own work is required.

If, in that first forum, people only do as instructed and introduce themselves, and few comment on each other’s introductions, the community never takes off and the forum remains a posting board. This happens regardless of whether I, as the instructor, participate by welcoming people or not.

Interestingly, the level of student success in the forums doesn’t seem affected by which way it goes. They help each other at the same level regardless, because those trying to get an A are required to offer a helper reply to someone each week. Performance and learning seem unaffected by whether or not they form a community, but they clearly have more fun and make more social connections. Such support likely does have an effect I cannot see, perhaps engendering confidence and reducing fear.

But I wonder the extent to which it’s up to the students to form community anyway, even in classes where instructors are trying to force engagement and conversation?

Visual tricks for instructor forum posts

As wonderful as the leveling effect of online classes can be, it is occasionally inconvenient for the instructor of an online class to be just another voice in the forum.

I love Moodle’s nested forums, and the way it shows everyone’s profile image, but even these visual cues aren’t enough to say, “Instructor post! Pay attention!”.

A bit of HTML to the rescue. I’m currently using a Horizontal Rule in a color to mark off my posts just a little bit, without being jarring.

The code I put at the beginning and end of my post is just

<hr size=2 color=blue>

If I wanted to be even more obvious, I could change the background color of my posts, which is what we do with the sticky posts at Pedagogy First! This would be just:

<body bgcolor="silver">


<bg color="silver">

depending on the LMS. One could also use all italics or a different text color, but I prefer to use something that students wouldn’t ordinarily be doing in their own posts.

Such a little thing, but it can really make a difference on a page full of posts!



When feedback isn’t seen as feedback

It’s taken me almost a year to figure out what might have gone wrong with last summer’s class. I need to take a look since this summer’s class starts Monday.

Last summer, thrilled at having only 40 students to tend to in an 8-week class, I had students post their historical theses in the forums instead of on a closed essay exam. I graded them according to a qualitative scale that translated into points, and made comments on each directly in the forums, which took a great deal of time.

I was at first so very happy with this method, having spent much time setting it up so beautifully. Then the class was over, and I got the evaluation, completed by only 16 students.
Ignoring the typical one-person-who-hates-everything-I-do student, 5 felt class expectations weren’t stated clearly. A surprising 6 didn’t find the Contribution Assessments helpful (these contain direct feedback for each and every student, in private), and though 14 said they read my comments on their own mini-essays in the forum, 2 thought I wasn’t even present and visible during class. Some comments on the open essays said:

“It would be helpful if we received more feedback on our short essays instead of a general comments so that we could improve our writing skills.”

“For someone who struggles with the weekly thesis maybe a little more information but since it was a summer class it was face paced. I enjoyed the class the grading was fair just needed a better understanding of the thesis but that could just be me.”

“I think more feedback on the essays is necessary. The only kind of feedback that I received was if something was wrong with my essay, but it would be nice to know the things that I’m doing well so that I could continue incorporating things into the essays that worked well.”

“I wish there was more direction for the writing assignments. Especially the final assessment.”

It has thus occurred to me that the continual, extensive feedback I gave several times a week on the posted essays was not seen as actual feedback or guidance by some of the students.

Keep in mind before you say I’m justing whining, that I give this evaluation every semester, and the overwhelming majority say my expectations are clear, the assignments are helpful, and the things they recommend tend to be things like “more content” or “less work”. Keep in mind also that my public comments on their essays were very specific, but kind and designed not to embarrass anyone. I also marked some of them with a bold For Everyone tag in the subject line, to provide more general comments at the same time. I thought this was brilliant — evidently not so much.

I can’t help but wonder whether doing closed essay grading instead, even if I said the exact same thing on each essay, would have led to a different result. Is it possible that forum postings from the instructor aren’t seen as feedback in the same way we view a private comment on a quiz?

So for the class that starts Monday, I have put the essays back into a standard, private, midterm and final exam format, with (as usual) the practice in the forums. We’ll see what happens.

Should “discussion” be separate?

This question goes way back to the first online class I ever saw demonstrated. The instructor, instead of using our one and only technology (Webboard) as a separate discussion, had embedded her lecture and instructions into the lead post for each week. And at the time (1998) I thought, “oh wow! the whole class is inside the discussion! This is great.”.

But I didn’t do it. Blackboard encourages you to put the discussion board in separate area, and even now that you can make a separate discussion forum for each unit, people still put discussion all together as one course menu item. In Moodle, I have a separate, nested discussion board (simple format) for each week/topic.

In my struggle to determine whether it’s a good idea to switch from forum post/reply to blog/comment format for clases with students, I have assumed that I would continue to integrate discussion as I do now, by week. But in my post about using One Blog, Brandon Davis-Shannon commented on his own difficulties with the format, and noted greater depth in the Blackboard forum than on blogs with comments. It occurred to me this might be because if the whole thing was together, students would feel less  awkward posting on a previous topic.

But we all acknowledge it depends on how it’s designed, and what (pedagogically speaking) we’re looking for.

So I created a Google Doc and invited Brandon to help create a chart showing some of the options, and here’s what we’ve done so far:

One big forum Weekly/topical forums One big blog Individual blogs
  • May reward students posting on previous topics, deepening conversation, especially if design of the discussion encourages them to do so
  • Easy to use
  • Ties discussion to one topic, prevents tangents
  • Organizes posts and replies easily
  • Combines course info and activities in one place
  • Easy to track student activity
  • Easy for students to keep up with peers’ work
  • Requires a single log-in to participate
  • Possible feeling of collective student ownership of class blog.
  • Student ownership of their own learning space
  • Acquisition of some “just in time” technical skills within the context of actual use
  • Aggregating blogs can pull whole class together
  • Artificially separates discussion and interactivity from the presented or informational content of the class
  • May overwhelm students with number of topics, as class continues.
  • Format doesn’t encourage students to go back to a previous topic, leading to a more superficial discussion.
  • Student ownership is not individual
  • Format may lead student posts to be lost in the shuffle
  • Blog may disappear if instructor takes it down, loses account, etc[a].
  • Unless commenting takes place on an aggregated blog (thus removing ownership advantage), the inconvenience of commenting on different blogs may be a problem
  • Diffuses the conversation too much
  • Discourages return to previous topics because of the nature of blog posting
  • Tends to require multiple log-ins to participate in commenting unless single system use (for example, Discus)
Pedagogy May be best suited for:

  • classes where themes run throughout
  • assignments that allow students to participate in several topics at once
  • pedagogies that want to place the information and content directly into the forum to emphasize discussion
May be best suited for:

  • topics that need to be separate
  • assignments where everyone has a similar task, such as posting a particular link
  • classes where topics have a definite progression or need to move on
  • pedagogies that want to place the information and content directly into the forum to emphasize discussion
May be best suited for:

  • keeping the class at one main website or page
  • having students experience creation of one artifact with individual contributions
  • pedagogies emphasizing collective development of the class
  • situations where individual blogs may be of concern for any reason
May be best suited for:

  • student ownership of their work
  • pedagogies that encourage student exploration and development of their own topics or focus
  • if the instructor has a blog also and content is aggregated, embeds instructor’s content into class
  • a course with centralized complementary activities
  • All class materials can be available as posts
  • Can choose between threaded and nested in some applications
  • All class materials can be available as posts
  • Can choose between threaded and nested in some applications
Theme (Layout?) Theme (Layout?)

Maybe this can help us make decisions on which discussion format is best for a particular class.