November 19, 2015 by admin
I have for some time thought highly of online discussion forums in online classes. I functioned under the assumption that discussion forums are the central point around which online courses pivot. I use discussion boards as a simple way to measure attendance and engagement in my online courses. After all, if you are engaged in a discussion, then you are intellectually involved in the class – simple as that.
Face-to-Face Discussions are like Pulling Teeth
I have often compared the vigorous and often frenetic interaction in my online discussion forums with what I found to be the exact opposite in face to face classes. Getting students to engage in face to face discussions sometimes feels like a dentist pulling teeth. There are always the two or three students that are vocal in class and others learn to rely on them to carry discussions. But not so in online courses. I can set a minimum requirement for engagement, and I have an easy and direct measure for assessment.
When I first started using online discussion forums, I was afraid that students would provide minimal input, and reply simply, “I liked your post” or some similar brief comment. So, initially, I set a minimum requirement for posts to the forum at 750 words and replies at half that amount. Discussion board fatigue soon set in, and as it turned out, 750 words is a lofty requirement. But lo and behold, when I lifted the requirement, the discussion posts were just as extensive, detailed and provided links to outside sources. So, up until recently, I have been pretty satisfied with those discussion forums and point to them as one of the hallmarks of online course interaction.
Do Discussion Forums Work?
Now, however, I’m beginning to wonder. Does extensive interaction necessarily lead to learning? Even if the answer to that question is no, that doesn’t mean discussion forums don’t serve a very good purpose, but when you think about what students get out of or take away from a discussion board, you might pause to consider the question: what do students learn in discussion forums?
I recently came across this article in the online journal Hybrid Pedagogy, The Discussion Forum is Dead; Long Live the Discussion Forum. The article written by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel suggests, discussion forums:
“become over-cultivated factory farms, in which nothing unexpected or original is permitted to flourish. Students post because they have to, not because they enjoy doing so. And teachers respond (if they respond at all) because they too have become complacent to the bizarre rules that govern the forum.”
So what is an online teacher to do? The answer that Morris and Stommel allude to is to meet students not in the isolated environment–the container of the LMS–but where they live, on social media.
Tweet Chats Create Community
To that end, in the online program in which I teach, we have begun to offer weekly Twitter Chats to all of our online students, not just those in a particular course. There is an opportunity herein to build genuine community among students and instructors who join the chat. We select a tweet chat topic, give it a hashtag and send out an email blast to everyone associated with our online program. One topic was “The ethics of Periscope,” and another “I wish they hadn’t done that” regarding digital media platforms. We create a guided discussion that lasts for a limited amount of time, includes a series of questions (Q1, Q2, etc.) and asks participants to identify the question they are responding to (A1, A2, etc.) That way we can track the ways in which participants are connecting not only to the questions, but to one another through their replies and retweets.
The opportunity that Tweet chats provide breaks the online course free of the restrictions imposed by the LMS. Moreover, this approach provides an opportunity to communicate with students where they live, through the digital media they utilize on a routine basis. There are many platforms beyond Twitter to accomplish this. So, the issue in the end isn’t about the discussion forum per se, as I think we all agree that discussion is good. The argument really is about where the discussion should take place and what the net learning outcomes are afforded by each modality. Have you tried a Tweet Chat or some other approach to online discussions? Tells us what you think.
Neil Alperstein, Ph.D.