This semester I am a grading assistant for an online undergrad course. I am also taking one online grad course, as well as one mixed mode grad course (meaning approximately 50% of the coursework is online, and the rest is done in a classroom setting). I have a lot of mixed feelings about this, but I think I’ll try to confine this post to my thoughts on, well, online posts – or as they tend to be called in the online course world, Discussion Postings.
In both the undergrad class for which I grade and the grad courses that I’m taking, we’re supposed to participate in online discussions about the things we read or about videos we watch (etc). These discussion postings are meant to simulate the types of discussions that would normally take place in a real-life classroom. Unfortunately, these “discussions” are so incredibly stilted, awkward, and contrived that I don’t think it serves that function at all. They are also meant to “prove” to the instructor that the assignment (reading, video watching, etc.) has been completed; however, as the postings are relatively short (the undergrad ones are typically a minimum of three to five sentences (!) and the grad level ones are typically a minimum of 500 words), it seems very easy to create a post without having actually done the reading/watching/whatever. I know that online learning is rapidly growing in importance and popularity. I love teaching in an actual classroom – and I love studying in an actual classroom – but I also realize that at some point I will probably find myself teaching an online course. As such, I’ve been viewing my online courses not just as something that I’m taking/grading, but as an example of what works and what doesn’t in online education.
So why is it I feel that these discussion postings are so inauthentic in terms of a substitute for an actual classroom discussion? Well, it has a lot to do with the specific way in which they’re scored. They’re typically graded along the following lines: X points for posting your thoughts on the reading/video/whatever, and Y points for commenting on at least two other people’s posts. This means that instead of engaging in an actual discussion, students quickly look for two posts to comment on, and then they never look back. They very rarely reply to comments on their own posts. (I try to, myself, but I am one of the very few grad students who do this. Even fewer of the undergrads do.) One of my undergrads was docked points because while she did make two comments, they were in response to two comments to her original post (as opposed to comments on other people’s posts). This was sad, because it was the only instance of actual discussion in the entire class for that assignment, and yet the student did not get full credit.
During my undergrad years, I sat through many a class discussion without saying all that much. We were given points for participation in general, but it wasn’t based on the number of times I opened my mouth in class. Sure there were times when I participated, but there were many other times when I either had nothing to say, or was simply more interested in what others (including the professor) had to say about a topic. While I certainly don’t know what motivated my undergrad classmates to speak (or not) during class, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t “I have to open my mouth X times to get a good grade.” This led to some undergrad discussions that were actually discussions. And whether I was talking or not, I was still listening and learning.
I’m not sure how that kind of actual discussion can be fostered online. Part of what makes a real-life classroom discussion work is the fact that it is moderated by the instructor in real-time. The instructor can bring up points that students have missed (or have neglected to bring up), can emphasize which aspects of the reading are more important, and can ask questions to get students to think about what they’ve said, why things happened, etc. This sort of real-time monitoring/direction is impossible to maintain in a discussion board that is open for, say, a week, with participants posting at random times throughout the week.
One of my professors responds to our posts during the discussion period and asks us questions, which at the very least leads to a mini-discussion between the student and the professor, although I have yet to see any actual discussions. My other online professor comments on our posts after the “discussion” period is over. It’s always interesting for me to see what the professor thinks of what I’ve written, but again, a comment after the fact hardly leads to discussion.
Is there any way to turn “discussion postings” for online courses into actual discussions? The only thing I can think of is to set up weekly live chats… although that would almost defeat the one of the main purposes of an online course, which is that you can take it regardless of your schedule.
As ironic as it is to be posting this online (haha), have any of you had any good experiences teaching/taking an online course? What worked? What didn’t? Please share!