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Author Topic: Getting students to discuss well online  (Read 31459 times)
neutralname
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« on: April 06, 2012, 8:39:00 AM »

I've been maintaining online discussions for years now and teaching online for several years.  A good portion of the grade in my online courses goes to the discussion board, and occasionally I will require online discussion in a regular class.

The discussion goes well enough.  But I'm looking to improve it.

Quite a lot depends on the particular blend of students in the class.  I have some control over that, by maintaining high standards and a reputation that the class is not for slackers.

I give some positive feedback for good discussion (probably not enough) and I point out problems with problematic posts. Sometimes I will wait for other students to point out the problems and then echo what they say.

My main insistence is that students discuss the readings.  They need to use quotations and refer to pages of the text.  Students who don't do this get much lower grades.

I maintain strict deadlines for the online courses.  Forums close at the deadline.  I find that most students wait until the 24 hours before the deadline before posting.  Some wait until the last few hours.  I find this a problem.  Sometimes I reward early posting with bonus points, which can help a bit.

I point out when grammar and spelling goes awry, not always but occasionally.

So I am looking for new tips to improve online discussion. 

How much do you respond to student postings?  What sort of responses tend to be helpful and what is unhelpful?
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zuzu_
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« Reply #1 on: April 07, 2012, 9:59:52 AM »

Are you me???

I haven't completely solved the discussion problem, but here are some additional tips that seem to help.

--Have a detailed rubric about what is expected for A, B, C, level work, etc.
--Grade harsh. Even if a student wrote up an excellent response, if s/he posted at the last minute and did not engage meaningfully with classmates, give no higher than a "B."
---When grade complaints ensue (or even if they don't), post an announcement about how to improve discussion grades. I link to a FAQ that says, "How can I improve my discussion grades?" Here is what mine is like:
Read the syllabus. There is a detailed guide to discussion grading criteria. Print it out, and keep it handy.
 
Go beyond the obvious. The best students point out fresh, complex ideas that may not have occurred to other students or even to me.  Do not merely summarize (content). Use what you learned in the textbook to ANALYZE the (content).
 
SHOW that you understand the concepts in textbook reading/videos .  Apply information from the textbook chapter when analyzing (content). Leave no doubt in my mind that you have read/viewed and understood the textbook/video.
 
Use quotes, details, and evidence from the (primary text). Anytime you make a claim, you need to back it up with evidence from the (primary text) and/or the textbook or supplemental readings/videos.
 
Meaningfully engage with other students. This means that you can’t save all of your discussion for (last) night. Stay engaged in back-and-forth discussion with classmates several times throughout the week.  Make sure you READ other students’ replies so that you aren’t repeating the same ideas. When replying to another student’s post, make sure you try to advance the discussion. Don’t merely “agree.”
 
Meet the word count requirements. To get a “B” or higher, you should have a minimum of around XXX words (total) written in each week’s forum. (Although keep in mind that quality is even more important than quantity.)
 
If you would like more specific feedback on how to improve YOUR grade in particular, send me a message, and I’d be happy to help clarify your strengths and weaknesses thus far.

.....

Some students won't care and will just accept the lower grades, but many students will rise to the expectations.
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histchick
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« Reply #2 on: April 07, 2012, 7:49:30 PM »

Love, love, love this, zuzu!
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drjennycrisp
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« Reply #3 on: April 10, 2012, 5:42:47 PM »

Great ideas. The only things I add to this are the obvious: require actual discussion in the form of substantive replies to classmates (and make original posts due two days or so earlier than the replies to get around the last-minute problem).

Make the earliest discussions in the course fairly scripted if that's possible to help students build skills.

Finally, offer example posts, original and reply, so students can see what A-level work looks like.
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proftowanda
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« Reply #4 on: April 12, 2012, 1:38:43 PM »

Zuzu's contribution, which I saw a few years ago in more of a rubric form, helped me a lot in improving online discussion.

I especially needed to figure out how to get better second postings, the responses to other students' initial postings.  I came up with more detailed instructions which require that they identify and specify at least two points made by the student to whom they respond, and the points must not be the same as those made by the respondent in their own initial posting; then, they are to delve more deeply into those points by again using the readings, citing them, and thinking before writing -- i.e., not just writing "good point!" or stating their similar "feelings." 

This definitely requires firm grading and posting from me for a few or more rounds of discussion, at first, but most of the time, students do rise to the requirements for discussion.  Or they drop, with the same result, overall.
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drjennycrisp
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« Reply #5 on: April 14, 2012, 9:29:42 AM »

I've had exactly the same experience with firm grading and more participation at the beginning. Extra time invested on the front end really pays off, and I've found that more students rise to the challenge than not. The ones who drop are usually the ones who thought an online class would be like getting credit for playing a video game.
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giacomo
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« Reply #6 on: April 14, 2012, 9:51:46 AM »

... make original posts due two days or so earlier than the replies to get around the last-minute problem...

I also require this. I have a discussion-first post deadline where students have to post their initial post and a discussion-two responses deadline where students have to post at least two responses to other posts. I also set up the discussions so students cannot see any posts until they post their own.
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neutralname
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« Reply #7 on: April 20, 2012, 7:43:51 AM »

There is mention on this thread of how difficult it is to have a good online discussion. So far, not much analysis of why, although the particular platform (e.g., Blackboard) seems to be a factor.

It is discouraging if even professors can't discuss well in an online class. 

Two thoughts arise from that thread:
1.  Should people teaching an online course also take a similar online course so they have some idea what it is like to be an online student?  Would that help in creating a good discussion forum?
2.   What ways are they to implement a more user-friendly and better designed discussion forum outside of Blackboard, (preferably one that is linked to Blackboard in a way that students don't have to use their personal email addresses and don't have to create new IDs and passwords.)
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polly_mer
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« Reply #8 on: April 20, 2012, 8:28:03 AM »

There is mention on this thread of how difficult it is to have a good online discussion. So far, not much analysis of why, although the particular platform (e.g., Blackboard) seems to be a factor.

I'll hazard the guess that the asynchronous with very few possible contributors and just one topic at a time makes a huge difference.

The rest of this post is laying out evidence for the hypothesis from my personal experience.

I used to read these fora before the days of registration while I was doing my dissertation (I defended in 2004 for reference).  I only read two or three times a week because getting enough posts to treat a thread like a discussion took a few days.  Consequently, I fell into the pattern of reading everything new every couple of days and each session would take maybe an hour at most.  Reading was like reading the serials that used to be published in magazines.

After these fora grew and about the time registration was required (that's 2006), I was reading nearly every day, but I could still keep up with all the posts by reading for under an hour a day.  Instead of reading the morning newspaper, I would see what people had posted since yesterday morning.

When I registered and joined (that's August 2007), I started logging in twice a day and having essentially real-time exchanges quite a bit.  Yes, some of the posts were the same kind of short articles meant for whomever was reading and contributing to a continuing discussion that was meant to be extended, but many were rapid-fire exchanges that, as Vox put it one day, were somewhat like being on the television stage with lots of viewers but only a couple active participants.  Doing that gave me serials, newspapers, and live interactions, which was fabulous.

At this point, I log into the fora when I wake up for the same substitution of the newspaper for about an hour, but I also log on whenever I have fifteen minutes to see what has happened to some of the rapid-fire things.  While I do still make some contributions to the discussions that will unfold over the course of a week or three, I find that I have a lot less patience for that, especially for topics that we have discussed eleventy-zillion times.  I want a discussion that will be active enough that reading twice a day is worthwhile.  So, newspapers and live interactions; serials are only when something that hasn't been talked to death occurs.

The problem with the Blackboard discussions that I've seen as a student and as a teacher is, usually, only one thread active at a time (each discussion is its own thread) or lots of threads only have one or two posts.  Even with the requirement to post every two days in a pattern of "what I think", "response to what you think", and "response to responses", with only twenty or thirty people, the discussion seldom takes off. 

Instead, a single thread is repetitious as people don't bother to read the whole thread, but post their own thoughts and then pick exactly the required N posts to which to respond so the thread has several sets of two and three posts instead of 20 related posts that build on each other.

The same thing happens with each student starting a thread; the "discussion" is sets of threads that each have three to five posts with no cross-talk as a true discussion would have.

I don't know the solution to that, but I suspect that's the problem.  Asynchronous works ok if the probability is such that someone will post something worth responding to every time I check so that the ongoing effort feels like a discussion.  Somewhat synchronous (space between posts is a couple hours) works pretty well and feels somewhat like an in-person class where, even if I'm not participating, I'm actively following.  However, the "no one posts anything and then everyone talks at once an hour before the deadline" pattern into which I've seen these discussions often fall makes participation painful even for those of us who love to read and write.  There's not the flow of a serial publication or a series of letters even; there's not the reliability of a newspaper; and there's not the immediate gratification of live interaction.  The whole thing is just kinda dead and painful.
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zuzu_
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« Reply #9 on: April 20, 2012, 5:15:14 PM »

Well put, polly_mer.

I'm looking forward to seeing how this gets solved in the coming years--it seems like a solvable problem.

I am sure the near-monopoly created by Blackboard eating ANGEL will not help. I'm hoping in five years or so Blackboard will go the way of AOL--or totally reinvent itself somehow.

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marigolds
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« Reply #10 on: April 20, 2012, 10:01:14 PM »


I don't know the solution to that, but I suspect that's the problem.  Asynchronous works ok if the probability is such that someone will post something worth responding to every time I check so that the ongoing effort feels like a discussion.  Somewhat synchronous (space between posts is a couple hours) works pretty well and feels somewhat like an in-person class where, even if I'm not participating, I'm actively following.  However, the "no one posts anything and then everyone talks at once an hour before the deadline" pattern into which I've seen these discussions often fall makes participation painful even for those of us who love to read and write.  There's not the flow of a serial publication or a series of letters even; there's not the reliability of a newspaper; and there's not the immediate gratification of live interaction.  The whole thing is just kinda dead and painful.

I wonder if having 2-3 weekly threads, started by the prof with prompts, for students to respond to (with the same "must respond to points at least one reply raised" caveat so they have to engage each other's ideas too) would work better? That's more like how we structure classroom discussions. We don't let people yell out any idea that comes into their heads ("squirrel!") and let each digression start a whole new discussion; the discussion builds off threads/ideas that are often started by the professor and that evolve through student input.

This way they would have some choice among the three weekly topics, but it would be more conversational/interactive.
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histchick
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« Reply #11 on: April 20, 2012, 11:09:49 PM »

Are any of you using Desire2Learn? If so, is it any better than Blackboard? 

I use the "blog" option instead of the discussion thread, though the students must reply to at least one of their classmates.  I have one class that carries on a great discussion most weeks, and the other (both gen. ed. survey level) is a dud. 
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polly_mer
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Have you worked on that project today?


« Reply #12 on: April 21, 2012, 7:49:41 AM »


I don't know the solution to that, but I suspect that's the problem.  Asynchronous works ok if the probability is such that someone will post something worth responding to every time I check so that the ongoing effort feels like a discussion.  Somewhat synchronous (space between posts is a couple hours) works pretty well and feels somewhat like an in-person class where, even if I'm not participating, I'm actively following.  However, the "no one posts anything and then everyone talks at once an hour before the deadline" pattern into which I've seen these discussions often fall makes participation painful even for those of us who love to read and write.  There's not the flow of a serial publication or a series of letters even; there's not the reliability of a newspaper; and there's not the immediate gratification of live interaction.  The whole thing is just kinda dead and painful.

I wonder if having 2-3 weekly threads, started by the prof with prompts, for students to respond to (with the same "must respond to points at least one reply raised" caveat so they have to engage each other's ideas too) would work better? That's more like how we structure classroom discussions. We don't let people yell out any idea that comes into their heads ("squirrel!") and let each digression start a whole new discussion; the discussion builds off threads/ideas that are often started by the professor and that evolve through student input.

This way they would have some choice among the three weekly topics, but it would be more conversational/interactive.

My trial of something similar a few semesters back showed the same "nearly everyone waits until the last minute to make the mandatory N posts" mindset.  Even keeping discussions open for a couple weeks to have multiple topics going resulted in one or two posts when the thread opened and twenty posts in the hour before the deadline to close the thread.  Those students simply did not want to discuss and instead were viewing the mandatory posting as a checkbox exercise.
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I've joined a bizarre cult called JordanCanonicalForm's Witnesses.  I have to go from door to door asking people things like, "Good evening, sir!  Do you have a moment to chat about Linear Transformations?"
marigolds
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« Reply #13 on: April 21, 2012, 9:21:43 AM »


I don't know the solution to that, but I suspect that's the problem.  Asynchronous works ok if the probability is such that someone will post something worth responding to every time I check so that the ongoing effort feels like a discussion.  Somewhat synchronous (space between posts is a couple hours) works pretty well and feels somewhat like an in-person class where, even if I'm not participating, I'm actively following.  However, the "no one posts anything and then everyone talks at once an hour before the deadline" pattern into which I've seen these discussions often fall makes participation painful even for those of us who love to read and write.  There's not the flow of a serial publication or a series of letters even; there's not the reliability of a newspaper; and there's not the immediate gratification of live interaction.  The whole thing is just kinda dead and painful.

I wonder if having 2-3 weekly threads, started by the prof with prompts, for students to respond to (with the same "must respond to points at least one reply raised" caveat so they have to engage each other's ideas too) would work better? That's more like how we structure classroom discussions. We don't let people yell out any idea that comes into their heads ("squirrel!") and let each digression start a whole new discussion; the discussion builds off threads/ideas that are often started by the professor and that evolve through student input.

This way they would have some choice among the three weekly topics, but it would be more conversational/interactive.

My trial of something similar a few semesters back showed the same "nearly everyone waits until the last minute to make the mandatory N posts" mindset.  Even keeping discussions open for a couple weeks to have multiple topics going resulted in one or two posts when the thread opened and twenty posts in the hour before the deadline to close the thread.  Those students simply did not want to discuss and instead were viewing the mandatory posting as a checkbox exercise.

I hate having to legislate everything--it takes all the fun out of it.

Maybe next time I do online discussions I'll force them to make a post a day or something similar--to MAKE them check in more often than right before the deadlines. 

I guess that's the difference between those discussions and here--we are here voluntarily, and we check in often so are in touch with the pulse of what's going on and the rise and fall of various threads.  It's so hard to recreate that artificially. 
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They are our servants.  They are like dogs.  Sometimes, they think they remember being wolves, but they are only dreaming.
polly_mer
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Have you worked on that project today?


« Reply #14 on: April 22, 2012, 9:59:07 AM »

Maybe next time I do online discussions I'll force them to make a post a day or something similar--to MAKE them check in more often than right before the deadlines.

I will bet folding money that means you will see a lot of posts in the hour before the day officially ends.

I guess that's the difference between those discussions and here--we are here voluntarily, and we check in often so are in touch with the pulse of what's going on and the rise and fall of various threads.  It's so hard to recreate that artificially. 

I think that is the number one reason that discussion threads for classes don't take off: the students don't actually want to discuss.  In addition, unlike in the classroom, they don't feel the vacuum of everyone just sitting silently until someone can't take it any more and says something just to break the silence.  A one-post thread that is unseen doesn't have that same urgency.
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I've joined a bizarre cult called JordanCanonicalForm's Witnesses.  I have to go from door to door asking people things like, "Good evening, sir!  Do you have a moment to chat about Linear Transformations?"
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