Terms in bold can be found on the Glossary page.
The first challenge you have when you want to develop good discussions which are engaging and substantive, compelling, interesting to read is to create a community where people, participants, discuss and feel safe putting out half-baked ideas, asking each other questions. It’s surprising, but asking a peer a question in an online text-based format can have a feel of audacity to it. And so you, as the instructor, need to create a culture of safety for doing that and also give people permission to do that so that it’s not read as a grill but it’s read as real curiosity and inquiry into each other’s ideas.
And another effect of being expected to converse online is the concern that if someone else had the idea, that’s their idea and so who am I to build on their idea. And it seems like it should just be natural, of course. Everybody should build on each other’s ideas. But in fact, you have to foster that and then give people permission to add a resource, add an example, give those suggestions explicitly in your directions when you set up a discussion activity.
So that’s the first thing is creating sort of a social, safe kind of community culture where that kind of back and forth is part of what is expected and what is okay to do.
When you design your question or your prompt for a discussion, you want to make sure that you’re not asking a yes or no question where it might prompt just single sentence yes, I liked it, no I hated it kind of responses. But something more substantive.
And the next level of failure is when you ask a question such as well, why do you think Hamlet did that at that point in the story? Well, there might be more than one answer. But it’s unlikely that there’s more than three or four. So by the time person 8 comes online, there isn’t much left to say. And so people try, but they don’t know how to add a resource or build on that idea even if those suggestions are there.
So you really have to think about what you want the conversation to include. And then frame a prompt that’s going to get a whole range or spectrum of ideas applied based on whatever content. Maybe they had an experience, maybe they watched a video, case study; perhaps they tried an experiment. Perhaps they solved a problem. How did you solve the problem? What steps did you take? What was your first question about this? What did you underline in the reading, in the article? Everybody underlines different things presumably and then it’s interesting to see the four people all underline the same sentence. When do we get that insight when we all go home and read something?
So then there must be a key idea and maybe if you’d asked the question, what are the key ideas? This thing that everybody underlined had never been mentioned. So there is a thought process with designing a question that will have many different entry points and solicit or elicit from the students a wide array of different kinds of responses.
And then you also want to front-load your discussion prompt or your discussion activity with what they should do with that initial brainstorm to get beyond just the brainstorm. Because eventually, it’s easy to get the brainstorms out there but where’s the real learning and where’s the real grappling with ideas? And so if you start, for instance with, I come from teacher education, so often I’ll ask a question like what does inquiry look like in your classroom? And people will give examples of activities. And they range all of a sudden different age groups; you see different content. But you also see different strategies that are more or less what you might define as inquiry. So then the deepening is what are the themes that you see? What do we seem to be saying inquiry is made of? Or what are the key ideas that are evident in these inquiry designs.
And then if things are missing then that would be another level. What gaps in our collective description do you sense as you look back at the portraits? What else could we do based on the reading or based on some other kind of information?
In setting that collaborative culture, part of what you’re setting is that half-baked ideas aren’t all right in the beginning. And so you’re not really looking at the first pancakes out there in the beginning. That’s the initial brainstorm piece. You’re really looking at where the momentum of the conversation heads from there.
And so if someone’s way off, if they do things that are just really antithetical to whatever it is, the content or suggest things that are antithetical to whatever the situation is. Then you want to watch and see how they further engage in the conversation perhaps or if you’re not that specific about each individual person, you want to make sure that the conversations moves in the direction that you’re looking for. And if it isn’t moving in the direction that you’re looking for, there are interventions that you can use. Mary said good idea, Jane said so-so idea. Mark said excellent idea. John said antithetical. Let’s sort for relevance here. Which, what are the real strengths of inquiry based on our reading?
You know and so then, actually the John said antithetical really helps put in sharp contrast oh, I know it’s not – you don’t have to say well, John was completely off base there. But you can say, well, Mary’s idea really builds on the evidence in the article or the idea that (Mary’s idea) but the idea that XYZ really builds on the idea and the article. That kind of conversation sort of shifts the momentum.
So I don’t worry about so much the different, little, myopic pieces that are in a conversation. If somebody is off-base about something that happens to be a key point, and I’m concerned for whatever reason that they might have missed the important material, I might send that person an email.
I don’t generally see stuff that’s that blatantly wrong just because people, once they’re posting in text, they tend to do their homework and they tend to read the resources and you know build their answer a little bit before they just post. And so even if it’s what does inquiry look like in your classroom, you might read the assignment before you put it and describe maybe what you hope more than or what you’d like to have it look like and not the dirty deal honest.
Or you might say, well, I can never do inquiry because my principal doesn’t allow that. That would be reasonable. Or my, whatever the context is.
And so that then becomes a tangential thread which, if it’s important, you can encourage them to discuss in a separate forum strategies for dealing with obstinate supervisors kind of a conversation. But you want to guide that pretty quickly out of the content-based dialog.
You are a community; you have a mission and a purpose as a community. And so the decisions that either you or they or you and they together make about what’s next when you have an array of opportunities like that really should be wedded to the mission because that’s why they’re here and that’s why you’re here. And even though it’s in text, I think for higher education instructors, it can feel like this is just a huge amount of data. But it’s not a research project. It’s still a classroom even though it’s in text and so that’s sort of the opposite pendulum swing. First you get nothing and you don’t know why you got nothing. And then you get so much wonderful stuff and you don’t know what to do with it. But it’s just staying focused on your mission.
It can be really overwhelming once you figure out how to get a discussion going what your role in that discussion is. If there are 20 students in your course and if there’s more than 20 students in your course, you definitely need to divide it into groups. But even with 20, I tend to have four to seven, maybe five to eight students in a group. I have groups sometimes that have 13 or 14 students in it but the students will find that overwhelming. It’s nicer for me, I think, because you get sort of more going on.
When considering how long you will allow for an asynchronous discussion to go on, it really depends on how deep or how complex the content is. But generally, what I can say is, usually people can be expected to brainstorm in a matter of say – if you have a seven day weekly discussion. That’s generally how I work as the asynchronous dialogs are set to go for seven days.
And so if you give people four days up front to get the work done, and then on the fourth day, to post their initial thoughts and then the next 48 to 60 hours, to build on those ideas, that extra two days or two and a half days is usually enough.
Now, you have in mind, when you’ve orchestrated the discussion, the content that you want to come out and if that content hasn’t come out at the end of that seventh day, that’s something that you need to deal with. And it depends on the course and format for the course. In courses that I’ve taught, I have had a separate forum called Weekly Discussions which are generally the place where I have all my students just check in and say wow; this week was really hard. This week was really fantastic. I couldn’t understand what that reading was about. Those kinds of debriefing points so I can get a sense of how the class is doing just as in a face to face class, I would look across the room and see how people’s – read people’s visual facial expression signs.
In the online classroom, sometimes it’s nice to have that kind of a check-in place. But also in that check-in place, I might start a conversation. Last week, we were discussing XYZ. Gail mentioned, Tanya raised, I always weave in at least three or four pieces from the conversation that build up to this either gap or concern about a wrong direction or a question left open that really needs to be answered. It can be a variety of things. For some reason I don’t want to let go of it because it’s key to my curriculum. And I’ll open it up again in that next week’s Weekly Discussion.
So if you don’t have a Weekly Discussion, then you do have to find some place to put that. I mean, generally, you’ll find that if you have a lot of those, a Weekly Discussion might be a good idea because it’s a place to put those. And maybe you’ll roll over two or three discussions over a semester and every other week the content will be covered. It’s not that every week, there would be one of those kinds of things. And they can certainly bring things in.
Another forum that I’ve used in some courses that I’ve taught is an open forum where anyone can bring questions or issues. And so if I have an open – that relate to content or if it’s a professional community. In graduate programs relate to the profession, relate to state laws and Massachusetts or state laws in whatever state they come from. They can bring in all kinds of things like that and everybody can contribute.
So it’s like a social forum but it’s more content related. And the social forum I like to preserve is really sort of light and social and friendly and I’m coming to Boston and anybody have any tips for restaurants, graduation, you know the fun stuff, the social stuff.
So that’s kind of the wrong place to put these kinds of related, tangential, serious content based discussions. But also, you don’t want to interrupt your content with the latest news cast about earthquakes if you’re studying earthquakes. You want to put that over in your open forum kind of thing.
I’ll tell you what my rhythm is in the courses that I teach now; the curriculum opens on a Friday. Their first posts to forums are on Tuesday and then they have from Tuesday to midnight Thursday to respond to each other. And so on Fridays, I’m at my desk all day long. And I use – and the program that I work in is Blackboard, I use collect. So I look at everybody’s posts. Sometimes I’ll print it all out so that I can mark it up.
And I’m only looking for the things that were the learning goals. I’m not distracted by the other stuff. And that is based on the course that I’m teaching. But I think in most of your courses in this program, you have specific things that you’re teaching so I think that would be similar.
I’m not distracted by, even though it’s interesting and there’s other dilemmas and political issues and stuff that raises, I’m looking for the learning goals that I had for this conversation. And I’m not looking for just the right answer. I’m looking for the wrong answers to that learning goal, I’m looking for hints and guesses toward it. I’m looking for emerging thinking that will be useful and I’m underlining. I don’t know what I’m going to say yet. I’m just noting all those kinds of thing that have to do.
And I look at what I’ve got to do. And with a group of five to seven, that’s small enough that I need to mention everybody. So if I have four of the five interesting things that they’ve said, then I’m going to arrange those and then I’ve got to go back and find something for number five. So I start with what they’ve said on the learning content that was at hand for this forum.
And then I either point them in the direction or I ask them to sort for relevance as I gave you the suggestion before. Or I give them a step up to a larger, let’s have a meta-conversation; what’s the pattern here? Are there any patterns here? Why aren’t there patterns here? Sort of that next level of dialog that some kind of critical thinking question that they may or may not be able to answer right now. If they’re really missing something, I might roll it over as I spoke of earlier.
But if they pretty much got the point that I wanted them to get collectively among them, not Barney said it, Jane said it, Jack said and Linda said it. But that it’s there in the content, then I want to still point them in a further learning direction in some way by asking the questions. So I call that setting a landscape.
So I only read on Friday. And I do – if people have a question in the middle, there is a help forum where they can ask questions and I check that regularly all through the week. And they can always email me if they have something they need to turn over right away. But it’s not my role as an instructor to respond to each of them because I’ve now named their names, anyway, at the end of the week. It’s not my role to respond.
I mean, we cut ourselves off if the power person comes in and unintentionally just really hijacks the conversation just because oh, the instructor posted. So it’s better to sit on your hands and not worry about all those posts.
The dialog I would recommend and a lot of the research I’ve done also would recommend that the dialog counts for a good bit of your course if you want it to happen at all because it is difficult to participate. So 40%, 60% of your course might be the online discussions. And then there will be other pieces; tests, which are presumably on similar or the same material as an outcome. Projects, that kind of thing which all reflects the kind of investment that you made. So you are testing their discussions in a way, indirectly, in your other sort of more traditionally assessed pieces.
But the discussions themselves; I look for participation. So if I say participate, post five to seven times a week, when I go through on Fridays, not to collect when I'm looking for content, but I have a different way of looking at all of their names and I actually still do it on paper. Some people do it in Excel or whatever. But I literally check off how many posts each person made that week and I notice. And then I see a pattern across so I have week one, dialog two, three; week two, dialog three, four. Just like a roll book in high school. I’ve come from secondary school teaching.
I see that Mary has posted ten times every week. She responds to a lot of people. And Jane has only posted once or twice. And also, when I’m reading those posts collectively, so I have that sort of quantitative, quick view. When I’m reading the posts collectively, if there’s something that’s really empty; geez, why did Mary even post that? Or what was Mary thinking that that was what I was looking for? I notice that. And if Mary becomes a pattern of just posting like one sentence drivel, that gets in the book, too. That’s a note.
Or if Mary makes an exceptional, really deep analogy or offers a tool that really takes off, that goes in my roll book just as a note. There’s a whole lot on assessment. It’s hard to say in here. But I’ll just make a list. You need to have rubrics for your discussions. Make it explicit what you expect in your discussions and what a great post looks like. What an acceptable post looks like and what’s unacceptable like just agreeing or disagreeing or evaluating somebody else’s post. Not acceptable.
So you need rubrics. You also need to teach them how to be collaborative and I have a model for doing that sort of – I call it a midstream self-assessment. They do the assessing of their posts using the rubric that I set from the beginning at about – and my 12 week course, it’s during week six. And that shifts the caliber of the conversation from then on to a higher quality.
Because they see the rubrics when they’re looking at everything in the beginning and they forget about them. They’re just talking. And then after they’ve gotten used to that and I come back to the self-assessment, they have to find valuable contributions that they’ve made to the collective dialog and send them to me, that’s a wake-up call and the contributions do get more valuable after that.
But it’s rubrics and it’s – the self-assessment is the key. To assess posts, you want to make sure that their quantity is reasonable and you want to note if something is particularly high quality or particularly drivel so that you can see patterns across time. But I don’t look at each individual piece of content myopically per student. I don’t check it like short answer questions on a test at all.
So rubrics and a general pattern of participation and then some kind of midstream self-assessment and even at the end, a self-assessment where they have to bring forward their best contributions. And then voila, you have Gail’s four best contributions from week six and week 12 from which you can say, you were terrific this semester. So definitely all 60% - your pattern of quantification, you’ve got a couple of little notes about great posts or little stars in my book and now these four posts that you’ve brought to show me as your exemplars terrific.