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.

 

Follow-Up to the Introduction/Conclusion Post

After having read my previous post about the legitimacy of the five-paragraph essay, one of my readers (and good friends) had a rebuttal: while the 5-paragraph essay may not the most applicable writing format for students to learn, it does have its own strengths. For instance, it teaches students to focus their attention on a single topic, and to remain steadfast on that topic as their text progresses. It gets them to outline their arguments, and to be fully aware of what they plan on writing before they go and write it. (In other words, to see the forest through the trees.)

When she brought up this point, I then brought up some counter-points of mine own. But it turns out that we’re actually in full agreement on this issue, and on each others’ points. You see, the 5-paragraph essay actually does provide some valuable lessons for our students. And let’s face it: especially given some of our large class sizes, these essays are the easiest and simplest to correct and teach. (But that hints at a whole ‘nother issue!) But this is the not the only way of teaching those lessons. And this is in no way the only way in which people write. So it would be best to teach this format at the beginning of high school, but only for a few months. Once the students “get the message” about the importance of structure and flow, we can then diversify, show them the other formats for the rest of their years in high school.

In other (but related) news, I just saw this post on answers.yahoo.com:

Notice how whatisan...’s second paragraph about school runs counter to her first paragraph about how “good writers” act! I find this striking (no less because of the juxtaposition of these arguments!) This, to me, shows how there’s this organizational culture at school that emphasizes following the rules, and getting a good grade, over doing the right thing.