Since discussion forums are one of the most basic and ubiquitous forms of online interaction in blended courses this presentation will focus on the special characteristics of discussion forums that make them pedagogically valuable, and on the pedagogical techniques needed to ensure the successful creation of an active community of online learners.
We normally assume that face-to-face communication is primary and superior to every other medium, and indeed there are settings in which orality is pedagogically necessary. However, there are some reasons to think of online communication as fully equivalent to face-to-face, and in some situations, even superior. First of all, it is well attested that in a traditional face-to-face class only a small percentage of students will speak, no matter what you do. There are strong social factors in play: students may not want to risk the humiliation of giving an incorrect response, they may not speak English as a first language and therefore are reticent to speak in an uncontrolled public setting, or very simply, students may be unprepared to answer the question and “freeze up” as a result. Studies have shown that both gender and race are important factors in students’ reluctance to participate in class discussions. But when students post to a discussion forum, a lot of the social barriers are removed. Posting to an online forum isn ’t nearly as “risky” as speaking in a face-to-face classroom. Moreover, students who may feel uncertain about their oral English may be quite comfortable typing a response to a question. Gender and race become of far less importance, so the online classroom becomes more inclusive as a result. A second facet of online posting is that students have no place to hide. If you require that they post, then they ’ve got to assume a more active role and participate in the discussion. Remaining passive recipients of instruction is no longer an option. Third, an oral conversation ceases to exist even as it is spoken. Unless it ’s recorded, no one can go back and retrieve it for further thought and response. By contrast, an online discussion documents what has been said. It can be read over and over again to tease out new aspects for comment. It remains available for assessment and feedback by the instructor. Finally, students in an online discussion have time to think about what they want to say, and can bring new resources to the conversation. It ’s much easier to reflect before answering and to produce evidence that would simply not come to the fore in the face-to-face classroom.
A standard distinction is made between “synchronous” conversations, which occur in real time, and “asynchronous” postings, which allow a longer span of time for anytime/anywhere postings. In general, online conversations in synchronous mode emphasize spontaneity and the immediacy of response. Asynchronous tools, by contrast, foster lengthier (and perhaps more complex) expression, and a corresponding emotional distance. Each can be appropriate to specific pedagogical situations: for instance, it’s easier to respond to questions in a real-time conversation, but it’s preferable to present more sustained argument in an anytime/anywhere forum. There are numerous synchronous tools that allow both audio and video connections, though in some respects such real time synchronous tools can more expensive in terms of bandwidth and the sophistication required to manage client software and plugins. Synchronous tools also imply that the participants are comfortable with rapid assimilation and response, which is sometimes not the case for reason of age or familiarity with English. Asynchronous tools tend to be less expensive or technically demanding because they typically operate in text-only mode. The demands made on participants are different, though not always entirely comfortable for students if their command of literacy doesn ’t rise to university standards. Overall, however, it ’s usually assumed that the ability to function in a single channel of communication – i.e., reading and writing – lends itself to university work more readily than the multiple channels of communication required in real-time conversations, whether face-to-face or online. For blended courses, therefore, asynchronous dialog is typically privileged.
I want to take a moment to distinguish two forms of asynchronous communication – email and discussion forums – from one another. It ’s not at all uncommon to find that faculty prefer email as the primary means of communication between themselves and their students simply because they are more familiar with it from their everyday practices. However, pedagogically speaking, discussion forums are far superior to email with the sole exception of making announcements to the class. How can I make this claim so unequivocally? Email is a private medium of communication (with the exception of class listservs), so it does not readily offer a space for public discourse. Perhaps more significant, email is hard to manage, given the volume of email and the unpredictability of security settings on mail servers. You ’re just as likely to overlook or forget about an email, or wind up having it sent directly to your spam folder, as to see it, especially if the class is a large one. Trouble-shooting email is notoriously difficult, moreover, since it depends on the diagnostic ability of the recipient rather than that of the sender. Finally, there’s no simple way to organize email for further class discussion. By contrast, discussion forums produce a public space for conversation that is available to everyone in the class. Discussion forum postings are easy to create in a stable text-based medium, and almost impossible to lose. Most important from a pedagogical standpoint, discussion forum postings are organized by threads, which makes them easily retrieved and examined for further development of arguments.
I think it will be helpful to illustrate the points that I ’m making in this presentation by going into some depth on the use of discussion forums in one of my courses, the Anthropology of Religion. This is a course that I’ve taught in one form or another since the 1970s; currently, the course is taught at an undergraduate & graduate level, and enrolls approximately 20-25 students. Roughly two-thirds of the course is taught face-to-face, while one-third is online. Nearly all of the online work involves the use of discussion forums. I redesigned this course as blended to address a persistent problem that I had encountered ever since I started teaching it nearly 40 years ago. When I taught the course using a standard textbook, the course evaluations at the end of the course always said that it was really interesting to hear about religions all over the world, but that it would be really nice to go into depth on one religion. After a few years of reading these evaluations, I would switch to using ethnographies instead of a text. And then the course evaluations would say that although it was really interesting to read in depth about these religions, it would be preferable to have a better understanding of comparative religions around the world, and the various theories that anthropologists had developed to explain or interpret them. What a dilemma! Finally, I decided to have it both ways: I would use the text in the face-to-face class, so that we could work with the theories about the anthropology of religion where I could explain them in some detail, and the students could ask questions to clarify any ambiguities. In the online portion of the course, I required the students to read a detailed ethnography on the anthropology of religion – a study of Neopaganism carried out in the Midwest – and then I made it their job to integrate the two parts of the course, face-to-face with online. In other words, I expected the students to use the theoretical and comparative perspective we had been emphasizing in class to interpret and explain the in-depth case study that they were reading outside of class and then discussing online. The rhythm of the class then became clear. The students typically worked face-to-face with me for two weeks (= four classes), then spent a week online (= two classes). The face-to-face class immediately following the online sessions was used to “debrief” the students so that they could review the threads of the online discussion they had just completed and simultaneously deepen their understanding of the theories we were applying from the text used in the classroom.
This screen shot is the first of two, which simply indicates the extent to which I used our course management system, Desire2Learn (D2L), to engage the students as an online community of learners. You can see here that I have established a specific area for each class meeting, including my lecture notes, in-class assignments, links to videographic materials, and the like.
My discussion forums area continues my practice of presenting an enticing environment for students ’ online work. I’ve found that using graphics reinforces the students’ satisfaction and comfort in this online learning environment. More recently, I have begun adding audio and video clips from YouTube, since my students find the media familiar and engaging. Most are, even in academic terms, at least somewhat media-savvy.
I present one of my online assignments in two parts. The first part is the assignment itself, while the second part provides the framework for the students ’ postings and responses. Please note that the question is relatively complex and open-ended. The assignment does not simply involve the students ’ ability to report what they have read accurately; instead, it requires that they interpret their findings in the light both of the textbook (reference to Bowen) and the ethnographic case study (reference to Pike) that they are studying. Finally, the question requires that the students carefully integrate the face-to-face component of the course, in which we have been discussing the Bowen text, with the online ethnographic study of Neopagans by Sarah Pike. I should point out that the notion of “moral panic” was first introduced and contextualized in the face-to-face classroom, then developed further online by the issues that I asked the students to consider.
Here is the second part of the assignment, that provides the students with a word limit, a statement of my expectations about the content of their posting and response, and a timeline for the entire project. You will note that I have broken out my assessment to award points for each phase of the assignment, to give the students a better sense of what is important and to make it easier for me to grade. You also can see that I have taken care to integrate the online work with what will follow in the face-to-face classroom by providing an opportunity for “debriefing” in the face-to-face class immediately following the online assignment. I refer to this by the phrase “closing the loop” as a way to frame the integrity of the blended mode of instruction: I am not merely running two courses – one face-to-face and one online – in parallel, side by side. Instead, each mode of instruction complements, extends, and elaborates the other.
I have included a posting and a response from this assignment as a way to suggest the richness of conversations that discussion forums are able to foster. The conversation, as you can see, is much more complex and thoughtful than in any face-to-face classroom, and can moreover be observed by all of the members of the class, who themselves can contribute to the development of the arguments involved.
As my example has indicated, discussion forums lend themselves to application of theory to specific examples, and to the higher-order analysis of course content. Debates are another way that discussion forums can effectively be used: one of my colleagues in Business uses online discussion forums to allow her students, organized into teams, to prepare their respective positions for face-to-face negotiations. Debriefing works two ways: you can either use the face-to-face class to “debrief” an online discussion, as my example indicates, or else you can use the online discussion to debrief the face-to-face class, in the sense that an online discussion can elaborate and extend the outcome of a lecture. Discussion forums are natural venues for the use of Web based resources, such as Web sites that focus on a particular topic (in my religion course, for instance, I tend to use sites on Islam that provide my students with basic information that they may otherwise lack), or Web sites for role-playing and simulations, such as Second Life. Online experience can be enlivened and its relevance established through a good use of discussion forums. Finally, both experience and scholarly studies suggest that students are unusually self-disclosive online – sometimes more than is good for them! This suggests that online discussions are particularly suited to personal narrative, since those who post to these forums feel less subjected to critical scrutiny than would be true in a face-to-face class. One thing that I note about discussion forums, which is evident in my listing of these uses, is the enormous range of uses – from analytic to confessional – for which forums may be used. From that perspective, discussion forums are one of the most adaptable tools at the disposal of the blended instructor.
What sorts of questions work well in discussion forums? One mistake that is sometimes made is to use the forum for “recital” rather than “conversation,” i.e., the instructor will ask the students to read a textbook chapter and post a summary. I think that this is an attempt to retain the traditional face-to-face format in an online environment: the main focus of the assignment is the delivery of content that the student passively masters. But this is a misuse of a perfectly good conversational opportunity: if you want your students to do their reading and then be examined to ensure that they have, the quiz feature of the course management system is well suited to the task; the dropbox would be an alternative. Everyone knows what a conversation is in real life, and knows how strange it would be, not to say annoying, if someone attempted to converse by reciting a lengthy summary of a book chapter s/he had recently read. Instead, a real-life conversation involves give and take among its participants, in which the results are open-ended, and an online conversation carried on via discussion forum is no different. So the first rule is to ask questions whose answer is not a foregone conclusion. Questions posted to a discussion forum should also be “edgy,” by which I mean that they are problematic in a scholarly way, and allow the expression of multiple perspectives. I always advise faculty to use the kinds of questions that might be posed as arguments in a paper written for a scholarly journal, involving the sort of paradoxical twist that persuades people to read your work and to enter the debate. If you go back to the example I gave from my Anthropology of Religion course, you’ll see that the answers to the questions I posed were by no means obvious or simple. A good posting would have to be carefully qualified to capture the nuances of the problem. At the same time that you must write a question that is complex enough to spark the interest of your students and allow you to assess their understanding of the course material, you must unpack all of your expectations about how they are to answer the question to give them a clear framework how to proceed. For instance, it ’s almost always a good idea to define a word limit so that students know the scope of their response. If you want to generate a true conversation, you need to build in a timeline that ensures students post by a certain date, then that they respond by a second date, and so forth. If their response needs to be a certain length, make sure you define that as well. Do you want your students to use APA style and cite references to the text or other resources? Do you want them to perform a spellcheck? If so, build that into your instructions, or they will treat the forum like an instant messenger, or texting on their cell phones. If you want the students to cover certain key elements in their response – e.g., a particular theoretical perspective, an example drawn from their own experience, a debate current in your field – it’s important to say so. In general, the rule is that the more you explain up front about the details of their posting, the richer the conversation will be. It ’s by no means a bad idea for you to capture a willing naïve reader (such as a partner) and ask her/him to read your posting to see whether they understand, without any further context, what is required. This is probably the best way to learn to unpack your expectations about an assignment of this sort. Finally, giving the students a context for their posting and response means that you are likely to have to define for them what counts as a scholarly argument, and perhaps even give them some examples to guide their work. Students typically equate argument with unpleasantness, rhetorical exaggeration, and an overwhelming emotional pitch, so you need to explain what counts as civil discourse in academia: how to approach different viewpoints, how to adduce evidence to support a position, what attitude to adopt towards someone who does not share your view.
How can you assess student work in discussion forums? Faculty often hesitate to use discussion forums for two reasons: (a) they don ’t know how to frame questions effectively to evoke a rich discussion from their students; (b) they don’t know how to grade their students’ postings and are worried that it will be too much work. I’ve already addressed the first of these; now I’ll consider the second. One way to simplify the grading of students ’ work is to give them good examples to follow. I argued above that a highly explicit, detailed question is more likely to get a good set of responses. The same applies to assessment: the more the students know about what a good response looks like, the better they are able to apply its format to their own answers. One way to give students exemplars of good posting is to write them yourself; another, perhaps more reliable method is to draw on previous semesters’ postings by students who did well on the particular assignment at hand. A general principle that you should observe is to give students discrete point values for each key element of their assignment, e.g., 1 point for good use of theory, 1 point for good use of example. This not only encourages students to provide a balanced response with all important factors included, but it makes it so much easier for you to grade, since you can see at a glance whether you are going to award 1 point for good use of theory or 0 points for poor use! Underlying this principle is the notion that to the extent possible, you reduce your grading time – while increasing the precision of your grading – by limiting the number of grading decisions that you need to make. For instance, grading a discussion forum assignment out of 100 points requires a lot of decisions, takes a lot of time, and results in a great deal of ambiguity. Grading a discussion forum assignment out of 5 points, with one point awarded for each discrete key element of the posting, takes almost no time and results in a very precise grade that is both fair and hard to contest. A short cut that many use in their discussion forum grading is to read through a dozen or so postings quickly to get a feel for the kinds of mistakes students are likely to make in a given assignment. Then write 6-8 short (two or three sentences apiece) commentaries that touch upon each of these characteristic mistakes. When you grade your students, you can simply cut-and-paste the appropriate commentary into the “Comments” area of the gradebook for that assignment. This way, you don’t have to write each commentary from scratch, and you achieve consistency from start to finish in the way you award points and justify your decision through feedback. Finally, it is strongly recommended that you adopt a formal rubric for discussion assignments. Examples of discussion forum rubrics are linked to the end of this presentation. Rubrics perform several useful tasks. They ensure that both you and the students have clear expectations about the nature of the assignment and what counts as a successful posting. They prevent what I think of as “grading drift,” where you gradually change your assessment criteria and points awarded between the start of your grading and its completion. And finally, a good rubric makes it much easier to grade quickly, since you have identified in advance what is important to you.
Finally, I ’d like to review some “best practices” for the logistical arrangement of discussion forums. As always, i think that the logistics of a learning technology must serve its pedagogical function – in the case of discussion forums, the pedagogical goal is to “keep the conversation going,” to use the late Richard Rorty’s famous phrase. In general, I ’ve found that very large discussion forums that encompass an entire class of 30 or more students can be somewhat daunting. To login and find that there are already over a hundred postings makes it very difficult to decide which to read and respond to first. My own practice is to break my class into small restricted groups of 10-12 students, enough so that if one or two drop out the rest won’t be inconvenienced. It’s then a lot easier for students to work within that small group, and they are more likely to see themselves as engaged in a community of peers. Given this approach, one way to limit the work done by the instructor is to ask the students to discuss a topic in their smaller groups, then post a summary of their discussion to a larger forum that includes the entire class. The instructor can skim the small group postings to make sure that everyone is doing their share, then focus most of her/his assessment on the summaries and subsequent discussion in the larger forum. One especially useful feature of the use of smaller restricted posting groups in this fashion is that if the usefulness of a topic is readily exhausted by a few well-crafted comments, it will take longer to exhaust that topic in smaller groups, since each group is unaware of the debate taking place in the other groups. Even if the groups all arrive at a similar conclusion, they will have worked their way through the issue independently. Most faculty find that it ’s helpful to maintain several different types of forums that correspond to the various pedagogical needs of a course. For instance, having a forum where students can ask technical or administrative questions about a course reduces the volume of email to the instructor and allows a collective knowledge base about course procedures gradually to accumulate. Allowing students to use a forum purely for socializing or for random postings (e.g.., contributing a link to an online news article pertinent to the subject at hand) can remove otherwise extraneous information from forums where the real business of the course takes place. Even formal assignments can require different forums, e.g, a forum where only APA style is permitted contrasted to a forum in which students may respond less formally. Finally, though scarcely of least importance, the instructor must define her/his own role in discussion forums. Some instructors (like myself) tend to be obsessive, and intervene frequently with provocative or contrarian questions whenever they see an opening. Other instructors tend to be hands-off so that students can find their own way. There ’s no single right or wrong way to proceed, but what is important is to let students know what your posting signifies? Does it just mean that you’re paying attention? Or that a particular discussion thread is off-topic? Or that a particular posting is interesting and deserves special attention? I think that this last point really gets to the underlying assumption of a discussion forum: a blended course is being reconstructed in such a way that the instructor is not the sole voice to be heard. Each student, through the methods I have identified above, develops her/his own voice in a well-wrought discussion. By the same token, the instructor is redefining her/his own role, and thereby must rediscover the voice that is appropriate to the course or the assignment at hand. The difference in blended courses that actually makes a difference in the manner of their pedagogy is precisely that the monotone of text and instructor are disrupted, then redefined in more useful and interesting ways. All of the advice I ’ve offered in this presentation is directed, ultimately, towards that single purpose.
ICBL DIscussion Forum
Using discussion forums in blended courses Matt Russell, Ph.D. & Gerald Bergtrom, Ph.D. Learning Technology Consultants Learning Technology Center University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Why online communication can be better than face-to-face <ul><li>Status leveling </li></ul><ul><li>Accountability </li></ul><ul><li>Documentation of learning </li></ul><ul><li>Reflection and resources </li></ul>
Synchronous vs. synchronous <ul><li>Synchronous ( “real time”) </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Text-only chats </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Synchronous tools with audio/video capability, e.g., Adobe Connect, Wimba, Elluminate </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Instant messenger/VOIP: MSN, Yahoo, ICQ, Skype </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Asynchronous ( “anytime/anyplace”) </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Journaling, blogging, and wikis </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Email (one to one vs. class reflectors) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Discussion forums </li></ul></ul>
Email vs. discussion forums <ul><li>Email </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Private </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Hard to manage </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Hard to review and build discussion </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Discussion forums </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Public </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Stability and ease of use </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Organized by threads </li></ul></ul>
Example: Anthropology of Religion <ul><li>Undergraduate/graduate level seminar </li></ul><ul><li>20-25 students enrolled </li></ul><ul><li>Use theoretical and comparative text in class; use ethnographic case study online </li></ul><ul><li>Two weeks (= 4 classes) face-to-face, one week (= 2 classes) online </li></ul><ul><li>Students ’ task is to use discussion forums to integrate text with case study </li></ul><ul><li>Always use one face-to-face session following online work to integrate two modes of instruction </li></ul>
Uses of discussion forums <ul><li>Applications </li></ul><ul><li>Higher-order analysis </li></ul><ul><li>Debate </li></ul><ul><li>Debriefing </li></ul><ul><li>Use of Web based resources </li></ul><ul><li>Personal narrative </li></ul>
Writing discussion forum questions <ul><li>A conversation, not a recital </li></ul><ul><li>“ Edgy” questions with multiple perspectives </li></ul><ul><li>Be very explicit about posting requirements, e.g., timing, length, formal scholarship, key features of good posting </li></ul><ul><li>Define what counts as appropriate argument or civil discourse </li></ul>
Assessing student work in discussion forums <ul><li>Post samples from previous course </li></ul><ul><li>Award points for each key element of assignment </li></ul><ul><li>Create 6-8 typical assessments to be copy-and-pasted as feedback </li></ul><ul><li>Adopt formal rubric for your own and your students ’ guidance </li></ul>
Discussion forum logistics <ul><li>Smaller “restricted” groups of 10-12 students </li></ul><ul><li>More comfortable posting in smaller group </li></ul><ul><li>Discuss in smaller group, then post summary to entire class </li></ul><ul><li>Avoid exhausting a subject too quickly </li></ul><ul><li>Maintain different types of forums, e.g., for asking course questions, for socializing, for formal assignments </li></ul><ul><li>Define expectations about instructor ’s role – when and why will s/he intervene? </li></ul>
Online resources <ul><li>Taking discussion online (Dartmouth) </li></ul><ul><li>Moderating and facilitating online discussions (Sonoma State) </li></ul><ul><li>Tips and strategies for facilitating online discussions (Canadian) </li></ul>
Discussion Rubric Example 1 <ul><li>“ A” LEVEL PARTICIPATION (9-10 Points) </li></ul><ul><li>The participant integrated evidence from the reading, lecture, or past experience in supporting their argument. </li></ul><ul><li>The participant consistently posted insightful comments and questions that prompted on-topic discussion. </li></ul><ul><li>The participant consistently helped clarify or synthesize other class members' ideas. </li></ul><ul><li>If disagreeing with another class members' ideas, the participant stated his or her disagreement or objections clearly, yet politely. </li></ul><ul><li>“ B” LEVEL PARTICIPATION (8 Points) </li></ul><ul><li>The participant was notably lacking in one or two of the items listed for A-level participation. </li></ul><ul><li>The participant consistently had to be prompted or coaxed to participate. </li></ul><ul><li>The participant usually, but not always, expressed herself or himself clearly. </li></ul><ul><li>“ C” LEVEL PARTICIPATION (7 Points) </li></ul><ul><li>The participant was consistently lacking in two or more of the items listed for A-level participation. </li></ul><ul><li>The participant was extremely reluctant to participate, even when prompted. </li></ul><ul><li>The participant rarely expressed himself or herself clearly. </li></ul><ul><li>“ D” LEVEL PARTICIPATION (6 Points) </li></ul><ul><li>The participant frequently attempted (success is irrelevant) to draw the discussion off-topic, even if the participant's participation otherwise conforms to a higher level on the rubric. </li></ul><ul><li>“ F” LEVEL PARTICIPATION (0-5 Points) </li></ul><ul><li>The participant was rude or abusive to other course participants. The participant consistently failed or refused to participate at all, even when specifically prompted or questioned, even if the participant's participation otherwise conforms to a higher level on the rubric. </li></ul>
Discussion Rubric Example 2 Criteria Excellent Good Average Poor Timely discussion contributions 5-6 postings well distributed throughout the week 4-6 postings distributed throughout the week 3-6 postings somewhat distributed 2-6 not distributed throughout the week Responsiveness to discussion and demonstration of knowledge and understanding gained from assigned reading very clear that readings were understood and incorporated well into responses readings were understood and incorporated into responses postings have questionable relationship to reading material not evident that readings were understood and/or not incorporated into discussion Adherence to on-line protocols all on-line protocols followed 1online protocol not adhered to 2-3 online protocols not adhered to 4 or more online protocols not adhered to Points 9-10 8 6-7 5 or less
Discussion Rubric Example 3 Criteria Advanced Proficient Not Yet There Not There at All Development of Ideas Well-developed ideas; introduces new ideas, and stimulates discussion (5-6 pts.) Developing ideas; sometimes stimulates discussion (3-4 pts.) Poorly developed ideas which do not add to the discussion (1 pt.) Does not enter the discussion (0) Evidence of Critical Thinking Clear evidence of critical thinking-application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Postings are characterized by clarity of argument, depth of insight into theoretical issues, originality of treatment, and relevance. Sometimes include unusual insights. Arguments are well supported. (5-6 pts.) Beginning of critical thinking; postings tend to address peripheral issues. Generally accurate, but could be improved with more analysis and creative thought. Tendency to recite facts rather than address issues. (3-4 pts.) Poorly developed critical thinking (1 pt.) Does not enter the discussion (0) Clarity Posts are well articulated and understandable (4 pts.) Posts are understandable, but some thought is required (2-3 pts.) Posts are difficult to clarify (1 pt.) Posts are unintelligible or not present (0) Responses to Other Students and Instructor Interacts at least 2 times with other students and/or instructor. (4 pts.) Interacts at least once with other student or instructor. (2 pts.) Does not enter discussion (0) Timeliness Individual messages and at least two responses posted before deadline (4 pts.) Individual message posted before deadline but at least one response is late. (2 pts.) Posting is made after deadline or both responses late. (1 pt.) Everything is late or not completed. (0)