Maximizing the Potential of Online Classroom Discussions

About a week ago, a group of Twitterers from #stuvoice were discussing the merits and implementation of blogs in the classroom:

 

 

I have a quick point that I’d like to make about this:

Throughout my time in school, I’ve had several teachers assign blogs, discussion boards, or Twitter for a grade, where students would come online and discuss something related to the material we’ve learned in class. Some courses where this has occurred include:

  • English
  • Electricity and Magnetism
  • Leadership
  • Information Systems
  • Social Context of Business
  • Organizational Behaviour

Sometimes this method has been successful, sometimes not so much. And once in a while, our discussions have been truly amazing!

Different grading schemes have used, including:

  • A) As part of the student’s overall in-class participation grade (worth 15%): each post boosts your grade, but posting online is completely optional
  • B) 5% participation grade, segmented as its own assignment: 1% for posting regularly (at least once weekly), 4% on general effort (marked in a very loose manner)
  • C) 5% participation grade, but on a deductive grading scheme: you must post a “thoughtful and well planned-out” comment every week on a new given topic, and if you don’t you lose a mark

Usually the best discussions have occurred when there was a back and forth between 2 or more students, rather than having student just posting new, unrelated thoughts all of the time. Actually, I’d advocate having both: back-and-forth, and new ideas.

This best occurred in scenario B. In fact, I’ve found online classroom discussions  to work best in general under scenario B. And now I wonder, why? Well, there are two factors at play here, when it comes to how the teacher sets up the classroom discussion with respect to the class syllabus:

1. Whether or not the students are required to participate for their marks/

2. How tightly controlled the rules of the discussion are.

Put the two together, and we get this:

So, the “best” scenario corresponds to scenario B (described earlier),  The bottom left is scenario A, and the top right is scenario C.

Online classroom discussions work best, when the assignment is “structured, but not controlling.”

This structured, but not controlling philosophy is one that I believe in (as you’ll continue to see), and it was inspired by the Self-Determination theory that I described earlier. I believe that the structure “gets people going,” brings people together, and motivates them to work, but the autonomy gives people room to “be themselves,” and to remain intrinsically motivated and authentic as well.

And finally, as for the whole idea of doing online classroom discussions, I think it’s wonderful! These are the mediums that the youth of today understand, the tools that our society will be using in the future, and the “language” that we students speak. It allows for written, student-student interaction, rather than just student-teacher interaction.

Thinking points and possibilities:

1. Imagine if the teacher invited a “guest poster” to join the discussion and interact with the students! For instance, a current politician in a poli sci class, or the actual author of the book in an English class. The possibilities are endless!

2. In my experience, classroom discussions have always been kept within the 1 classroom full of students. Imagine if the 2 classes, from different parts of the country, interacted on the same discussion board. Imagine if students from different grade levels participated in the same discussions. Imagine if students continued their discussions even after the course was over, a year or two later.

 

The Organizational Culture at Desautels

This was an article that I wrote for a class a few years ago. It applies the concept of organizational culture to the school and faculty and that I am currently attending. Just a warning, it was originally intended as an academic paper, so that style of writing I used is way different than the style I normally use here on this blog.

Organizational culture is the set of all the shared values, beliefs, norms, and assumptions within an organization. It provides individuals with a shared frame of reference that applies to the capacity with which they expect to interact. While it often has both a physical and a non-physical aspect, the latter is its sine qua non. In other words, even when it manifests itself through observable artifacts, it must have some sort of meaning to be considered culture.

Indeed, organizational culture a very fluid, subjective concept. It influences people’s cognitions, emotions, and behaviour, but it itself is socially defined. It underscores the reciprocal influence between individuals and the institutions and situations where they interact.

Only the assumptions that help an organization to deal with its internal and external threats tend to persist. As the organization ages, the successful assumptions become increasingly taken for granted as natural and obvious. This has negative and positive effects. On one hand, it allows the individuals to transfer their mental energy from processing the assumptions to fulfilling the organization’s goals. On the other hand, it can lead to stagnation and make the organization vulnerable if the threats to its survival change.

There are several underlying dimensions of organizational culture. Each of them highlights specific examples of how culture manifests itself. For instance, the dimension of the nature of human activity prescribes expectations on the behaviour of individuals, especially those within the organization. Whichever behaviours are in line with the values of the organization are promoted and/or rewarded, and those that are not are discouraged and/or punished.

No two people are alike, but some people are more different to each other than others. Thus, you will find that some groups of people are more diverse than others. Furthermore, a group of people may be more diverse in some aspects, and less diverse with others. The degree to which each aspect of diversity is promoted or discouraged is known as the homogeneity vs. diversity dimension.

Another dimension of culture is the nature of human relationships. This describes how a culture rewards the way people treat other people in the organization, and whose interests each of them is looking out for. It also describes the culture’s views with respect to competition between individuals.

In order to understand the culture of the Desautels BCom experience, it is important to understand its social context. The Faculty of Management is mostly run like any other North American undergraduate school: students attend classes, study the material, and try to get good grades. Thus, much of its culture imbedded in this educational system, and by the time students have entered it, they have well socialized into it during their time in grade school.

However, there are some things which set it apart. (From my personal experience, I can only compare it with the McGill Faculty of Arts.) Compared to Arts, Desautels emphasizes an interesting combination of group work and competitiveness. The competitive aspect is manifest through the 65-75% class average rule. This shows a concern to integrate students into the competitive management culture, where one’s financial gain often comes at the expense of a competitor. This also shows a high value on fairness, in the sense that it rewards professors for challenging their students at a standard level. The cooperative aspect is made manifest through the emphasis on group projects, which is in stark contrast with the individual assignments typically given in Arts. This is possibly done to mediate the highly competitive organizational culture, and possibly to reiterate the assumption of preparation for the management culture. The dimension of the nature of human relationships shows how the culture at Desautels is a unique blend of management and undergraduate education culture.

Desautels has a high percentage of international students and faculty. The school’s website, agenda, and promotional material all emphasize the international nature of the school. Alternatively, only those with the highest grades are admitted into the program, while extracurricular activities are not taken into account. Thus, the Desautels application procedure operates on geographic diversity, but not intellectual or lifestyle diversity. Diversity with respect to field of studies is encouraged, as can be seen with the flexibility of the program and the wide range of majors and concentrations to choose from. All undergraduates are expected to take courses outside of the faculty, which indicates a value in being a well-rounded person.

McGill expects its students to be proactive in many respects. Much of the students’ focus is expected to be on achieving high grades and getting involved in the school community. These two things are verbally emphasized during Orientation week, the mandatory Career Prep 101 and other workshops, and during class.

On the other hand, students are not encouraged to be active with respect to the grading system of the class. Whether they will complete an assignment, a quiz, or an oral presentation has been predetermined by the professor, and it is never publicly debated or questioned in class. And in contrast to other faculties, students generally cannot “drop” their lowest mark, and they cannot decide when listen to a lecture, as there are no recordings available online. Students are expected to be more passive in this respect.