Friday, November 16, 2012

Online courses and “discussion”

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!


Unknown said...

What worked for me in *one* of my online classes (undergrad) was the tone that our instructor used from day 1 to set the introductions.

Instead of simply "Write a sentence about your name/birthplace/major" she asked us to propose a question to our classmates, that was a "real" question -- something we would ask in real life.

Her question to us was to share our favorite recipe. I don't remember others in particular (I think mine was the best place to get a burrito) but people chose fun questions, and we felt really connected. Because of the nature of the course -- personality theories at a community college level -- the discussion questions throughout the semester remained geared toward the personal, and this made it more interesting to respond.

ALSO our access to everyone else's posts was locked until we made our first post. While this is counter to the model of live classroom discussion, it actually resulted in more diverse subtleties because people's original thoughts remained original.

Additionally -- and this is micromanaging for some but it really did help in terms of discussion -- our first post was due by Thursday (no late credit), and our response posts were due by Saturday (no late credit) with a quiz on Sunday.

That model prevented everyone from trying to do rote read & response in the same 15 minutes before midnight.

Anonymous said...

Grading systems invite students to game the system, so anything based on X comments plus Y student comments is inviting students to do what you observe.

I think a professor making anonymous comments, "trolling" or judicially inspiring or engaging discussion would be a clever way to approach this.

Annie Nimity said...

One of my online classes had an introductory discussion posting. It wasn't anything like the one you describe, although it was definitely the most discussion-like of any of our postings.

I also like the idea of keeping other people's posts blocked until you post yours, as it would prevent people from paraphrasing the posts of others.

How would you design and give instructions for a discussion post that would encourage discussion without laying down a specific grading rubric?

Patricia Watkins said...

Hi Annie
I am also taking a graduate course online where the discussions are very similar to the ones you discussed your article.
Believe or not the only time I lose points in the course is on the discussions. Sometimes I read through all of my classmates post and just can't find one post that I want to respond to. The discussion is definitely my weak point. I am also hoping to teach online and you are right, we will have to find a way to add some reality to the discussion.

Annie Nimity said...

I quite often find myself posting rather BS comments on posts I care nothing about just to make the "quota" - I hardly see how that's useful at all :(