Managing online discussions

As we at Illinois Wesleyan struggle to adapt courses to include online or technology components it often seems that a square peg is being pounded into a round hole. Some parts of some courses are well suited to technology tools and some are not. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Online resources can be accessed at any time, from any place, any number of times
  • Computers can deliver content at the student’s own pace

So it seems that some things can be done outside of classtime so we can get them “out of the way” to spend classtime on higher-level academic discourse. Why not teach basic terminology or vocabulary as online homework so you can tackle tougher stuff in person?

Similarly, if students are engaging in intellectual enterprises outside of class (such as writing critical responses to class reading) doesn’t that mean they benefit from the practice of constructing arguments, or even from the practice of writing in general?

Certainly there are benefits. But how does a teacher manage student activity in the online medium? Let me start with three common refrains from faculty:

  • “How do I get students to engage in frequent, quality online discussions?”
  • “How am I going to grade all that?”
  • “How am I even going to read all that??”

I attended a conference this month and heard an interesting response to these concerns. John Fritz, from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County uses a construct he calls “Participation Portfolios.” Here is his abstract:

If you want students to use online discussions, how do you avoid initiating every thread or simply counting all their replies? By defining and rewarding substantive Q&A (and requiring an online “participation portfolio”). Students will take responsibility for discussions and reduce your burden in assessing them.

John makes an important distinction between quantity of discussion and quality of discussion. This is something that he clearly sets out at the beginning of a course with a rubric. By setting clear guidelines of what makes a post or response “good”, “average”, or “poor” he eliminates “me-too” responses and also reduces grade-groveling later in the term. He requires posts and responses to be spread throughout the course, to stem the tendency to “dogpile” at the end of a term. And it cannot be ignored that John participates in the online discussion. This models the behavior he desires from his students, and sets the academic tone of the discussion.

The students are then asked to pull the best examples of “good” posts, week by week, from the online class discussion forum. They cut-and-paste them into a Word template, propose their own grade based on the rubric, and hand them in. John reserves the right to adjust the grades, but finds that most students are harder on themselves that he would have been.

This system of Participation Portfolios addresses a number of problems. It provides a for-credit incentive with clear quality guidelines for students . It reduces the workload on a faculty member by distilling a term’s worth of discussion into a single assignment. It also requires a student to evaluate their writing and assess themselves.

If you want to hear about how well the assignment works, watch this video interview with UMBC Professor Chris Swan about this portfolio assignment (opens in iTunes).

UMBC didn’t come up with this overnight. They have a program on their campus to promote Alternative Delivery of class content. Faculty design a online/hybrid learning module and test it twice – once for students and once for faculty. They then make a 10 minute presentation about their experience to earn a stipend.

I hope that by reviewing the best practices at some other institutions, such as the Portfolio that John Fritz proposes, we might ease the integration of technology into some of our own courses.

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