Discussion Boards and Online Teaching

I was reading a thread in an online teaching forum about late discussion board posts. Many of the educators were willing to allow some points beyond their syllabus stated policy for comprehension, but not engagement. However, one poster equated the discussion board to the classroom essentially stating educators don’t hold make-up classes for students so why award points for late work.

I should also frame this with the fact that I have a fairly loose late policy – each student has one free late assignment – no questions asked (I don’t want to know about the vomit, or the grandma, or the dog, etc.) AS LONG AS THEY NOTIFY ME IN ADVANCE. They only need to notify me a few minutes in advance – the policy is an automatic yes if you’ve asked – I see this as a way to get better papers and slightly less stressed students.

So with the understanding that late policies are set by instructors and institutions, and vary greatly, I want to focus on the idea that the discussion board = class.

When I wrote my dissertation, Scott Warnocks Teaching Writing Online: How and Why was one of the most comprehensive texts about online composition courses. It still holds a high place on mosts lists (include this one). Warnock recommends instructors translate their face-to-face curriculum online, emphasizing the writing possibilities in digital spaces. In many ways, this reliance on translate or migrate is similar to the discussion board I’m following – instructors make a direct one to one connection between what happens in face-to-face class and what therefore must happen online. However, this overvalues the face-to-face classroom model.

Not all classrooms look the same. I need to say this again, Instructors choose to teach their classes in ways that meet curricular goals effectively for them. Not all classrooms look the same. So, why do online courses needs to look just the face-to-face course?

I understand and agree that many students are new to online learning – reinventing the wheel with design and learning decisions students don’t understand in the online classroom space can be problematic – instead of learning content students focus on understanding navigation, design, and basic instructions. I don’t want to purposely confuse students, but I also think if we continue to tell them that discussion boards = class they will continue to phone-in their discussion posts. Not all students thrive on active participation in face-to-face classrooms, but discussion boards don’t offer the type of flexibility that classrooms do (it’s harder to notice if a student is struggling and/or disliking the forced conversation in posts the way instructors can notice in the classroom).

In the Spring semester I’m leading a small departmental reading group about teaching online composition. I’m really hoping to develop conversations like this – how does design influence how students learn, and how can online composition courses use that to facilitate better learning? Let’s move away from an online needs to resemble a face-to-face and begin the questioning and the inquiry from the point of learning in digital space. Since learning is the goal, let’s reimagine ourselves as less point calculators for discussions that should resemble a classroom, and consider where we can design moments of learning about writing, where meaningful feedback can be returned for student learning and writing improvement. I hope I can quickly shift everyone away from using a tool because it ‘mimics’ the classroom, and focus on using tools that support good learning about writing.

This ended up being a rather hopeful – my year ahead post. Well, tis the season and all 🙂

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