“End Of Semester Reflection – Online Discussion Posts”
The end of the semester always provides many emotions: the satisfaction of seeing a great deal of improvement since the beginning of the semester; the stress of coordinating and collecting a stack of final projects; and, dare I say, the anxiety of grading so many projects with a looming deadline. We have many things on our desks at the end of the semester, and I hope one of them is an opportunity for reflection. If we expect to teach a course again, it is in our best interest (our students’ too) to take a moment to figure what was successful and what could use work.
We don’t likely have time to reflect upon all the parts of the course. The assignments might scaffold in the perfect order. The calendar might stretch the semester to maximize online student time management. Announcements might be posted at just the right time. We don’t have time to think about everything, but we do need to consider improvement in some areas (and how improvement in one area can have a domino effect). At the end of this semester, many of my thoughts are devoted to improving online discussion posts.
Online Discussion Posts
During my online classes I see unmistakable connections between the quality of online discussions and the quality of the writing. In fact, I would argue that this semester some of my online classes outperformed my face-2-face students in the same course last spring. I also took over a colleague’s class midway through the semester, and I had to adapt to his discussion format. Teaching the same class with different discussion formats revealed some obvious differences between what worked and what didn’t.
The class I took over part way through the semester used a common discussion format. Typed posts were followed by typed replies. I prefer video posts with typed replies, but it would be unfair to make that change midway through the semester. One section typing discussion posts and replies and two sections recording posts and typing replies allowed me to perform an unscientific experiment.
When using the scaffolding approach to learning, the course has to be divided into steps. Students learn concepts each week and as we progress throughout the semester into more complicated projects, students must use more and more concepts to complete those projects. In order to progress through those steps each week has one or two big ideas that support the course content.
Here’s an example: one of the first assignment of the semester is a memo. Before completing a memo students read chapters and view example documents. Assigning discussions that ask students to analyze chapters and review example documents might help them complete the memo assignment but it won’t help them complete the report a couple months later. Students also have a difficult time having a discussion that simply analyzes chapters.
A better technique divides the course materials into big ideas (developed from an Understanding By Design Tree). In order for students to write a memo, what big ideas do they need to consider? Here is one example: what is a professional voice? Now students have the ability to discuss many things: ethics, tone, narrative distance, point of view, grammar, and so on.
These big ideas give students much to talk about or, at least, they should. Sometimes discussion boards can be banal. I’ve heard many colleagues call them ineffective, and I have had some poor experiences with them. Some people also describe online discussion boards as being more effective for upper division classes. Online discussion boards have been so problematic that some colleagues have found alternatives.
Instead of abandoning ship, I incorporated video into the online discussion. I require students to post video responses to the big idea and type replies to one another. The main rules for the video—less than three minutes and demonstrate critical thinking.
By taking over the class that used typed posts and typed replies, I was able to compare discussions that addressed the same big ideas.
My unscientific experiment does come with a number of variables. Students had already been using discussion boards and typing very little—the new instructor can’t necessarily recreate a new discussion board “atmosphere” midway through the semester. I didn’t provide a rubric for typed discussions, providing a length requirement (which I will admit has always been challenging for me. When I have required certain numbers of paragraphs, students find ways around thoughtful content by adding fluff). Plus, I’m sure; there are more variables that I’m overlooking at this time.
Regardless of the variables, the typed discussion posts and typed replies were a big disappointment. In fact, I’m hesitant to refer to the content as a discussion. Some students were insightful, but I could not tell if the vast majority had even read the assigned material.
The video posts engaged with the material. Again, the rules for the video posts were minimal (maximum length requirement and thoughtful). When using the video posts, students engaged with the course material and, oftentimes, had to stop abruptly from going over the time limit. Many other students just kept talking, ignoring the time limit. The content showed knowledge of the course material. Basically, students demonstrated all the critical thoughts about the big ideas any instructor would hope to get out of a face-2-face class. The added benefit, the knowledge of the course material had a positive effect on their writing projects—the major assessment components of the course.
Despite the success of video online discussion posts, I do plan to make some changes for next semester. I’m changing the LMS, which will have a domino effect on the class. The change to the online discussion posts will be minimal—going to scale back the maximum time to 2:30. The reduced time, I hope, will limit what students can actually talk about in their posts, which I hope will make the content of the replies more valuable.
It is real easy to copy an online course and reuse it again without analysis, especially during the much-needed breaks between semesters. Taking a little time for reflection, however, might allow minor changes that can prove valuable to online course content and student learning.
Last but not least, you may also find valuable the following online education articles: