Comments on Week 3 Resources: Facilitating Discussions

In “How to Build and Lead Successful Online Communities: How Is a Community Different from a Network?“, Nic Laycock (eLearn Magazine, Feb. 2012) says shared goals or “mutuality” is the glue in communities: “It is the mutuality of communities that leads to success.” It is “the, perhaps unspoken, bond that will draw people together into a more close association—one that has an intention of mutual advancement to benefit all.” In this environment, Laycock warns that “top down attempts at imposition will ultimately be rebuffed if people have not felt they have a part in the process.” Makes sense. Mutuality assumes a democratic decision-making process.

In “Discussion Goodness,” Lisa Lane (Lisa’s (Online) Teaching Blog, 23 Sep. 2009 shares a tip on how to promote quality posts. In her “Take discussion from here, please” exercise, she selects and posts “the best theses from the previous week, mentions the evidence they’ve presented, and creates tasks for the last part of the week.” This is an effective way to recognize students’ exemplary work while providing their classmates with suitable models. A potential pitfall is that students might overlearn and confine their performance to the standards in the models instead of exploring different alternatives and standards. Also, if the same students continue to be singled out for praise, the others become discouraged.

In “Using Discussion Boards in Online Classes,” Virginia Commonwealth University suggests that teachers “should set expectations on participation, grade both participation and the quality of participation, and provide rubrics that give students the standards by which they will be judged.” The caveat is that the graded discussion activity should be clearly and significantly related to performance in the culminating project, which, in my case, is a paper. The analytics that result in scores should have some predictive value on performance. Otherwise, the activity is irrelevant. The point is that students should be able to see a direct relationship between their performance in the discussion and in their papers. For example, in my classes, I’ve identified several independent variables (quality of feedback provided in classmates’ drafts, scores in reading completion tests, and accuracy in following guidelines) that are positively associated with performance in final drafts. That is, students who provide strategic suggestions on how to improve their classmates’ drafts, who pass nearly all the reading completion tests, and who follow guidelines in composing and posting their drafts tend to do well in their final drafts. This is a lot of work for the teacher, but the payoff is a clearer understanding of how students can improve based on specific elements in the writing process. Furthermore, this knowledge can, in turn, be passed on to the student who gains a deeper understanding of the connection between formative learning activities and evaluative outcomes.

Chris Weaver, in “The Discussion Board Book,” repeats the common wisdom that grading performance in discussions will increase the “amount and depth of participation.” Again, as stated in my comments on the Virginia Commonwealth approach, learning activity and outcomes should be directly related. Weaver adds “comfort” to the equation, warning that teachers should “set the tone by providing a safe community where students feel free to state their views with out[sic] fear of being chastised.” One of the disconnects in the work we do as teachers is that we are, at once, advocate and judge. We have to be nothing short of a magician to pull this off. Still, there are ways, and one is, as Weaver suggests, to set up a clear rubric that becomes an objective standard, external to both student and teacher. In this context, the teacher is more like a coach than a judge. If the student fails, she sees that she has failed to meet a standard and that it’s not the teacher who is failing her. This is an important difference.

Larry Ragan, in his module “Best Practices in Online Teaching – During Teaching – Assess Messages in Online Discussions,” repeats the claim that there’s a positive correlation between grading discussions and active participation. However, he goes a step further and says that “levels of sense of community” are also higher when we grade. He, too, warns that “too much emphasis on solely quantitative analysis of postings/messages can only result in coerced participation, poor quality of learning and student contributions to the online discussion.” He also says that “good facilitation by a tutor or moderator is important to creating coherent online discussions.” He mentions three causes for poor discussions: “isolated mode of participation, the structural organization of messages, and the conflict between the written form and oral function of technology-mediated interpersonal communication.” I interpret these to mean that the following conditions

  • the online student is not physically with her classmates when she is participating in a discussion
  • the complex and often confusing way forums and threads are set up
  • the act of writing instead of talking

conspire against online discussions. I agree — to an extent. Increasingly, however, students are becoming comfortable communicating with peers in distant locations and texting rather than speaking in discussions. With repeated practice, they also become comfortable navigating threaded discussions. In other words, it’s just a matter of time before these differences won’t matter, and the time gap is shrinking the deeper we get into the 21st century.

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4 Responses to Comments on Week 3 Resources: Facilitating Discussions

  1. Greg Walker says:

    At the beginning of your blog you mention that it makes sense that “It is the mutuality of communities that leads to success…and “top down attempts at imposition will ultimately be rebuffed if people have not felt they have a part in the process.”

    Later you state, “the disconnects in the work we do as teachers is that we are, at once, advocate and judge. We have to be nothing short of a magician to pull this off.” You mention “Weaver suggests, to set up a clear rubric that becomes an objective standard, external to both student and teacher. In this context, the teacher is more like a coach than a judge.”

    However if you are creating a objective standard,rubric wouldn’t that also be a top down imposition? If not, why not? If so are there other approaches we should consider?


    • JimS says:

      Greg: If you are creating an objective standard, a rubric, wouldn’t that also be a top down imposition?

      Good question, Greg. Yes and no. If the standard already exists, e.g., 3:26 for the 1,500-metre run, it’s independent of both runner and coach. The goal to break it and the process of selecting a coach with a philosophy and method that is promising is the runner’s. The coach’s task is to manage the training, and part of that training is to provide formative evaluations, i.e., to monitor progress.

      In this case, the relationship is mutual and the standards are objective — formatively and evaluatively gauged by a stopwatch.

      I’m not sure if this makes sense.

      • Greg Walker says:

        Ok, but shouldn’t the learner then have some say on whether they run the 1500 or the 100? Plus who agrees on the set standard? What if there are no pre-existing standards?
        Good comments!

        • JimS says:

          more great questions, greg. i think the answer is a lot simpler than we think it is. remember capt miller in saving private ryan? he’s an example of what i’m talking about. their mission was imposed by higher ups. the rules for their behavior were spelled out in military code. when the capt decides to engage the enemy, he doesn’t force those who feel it’s not part of their mission to follow. he moves out alone. when a soldier decides to desert, he leaves the decision to him. at the end, they decide to fight at the bridge instead of run — and to protect ryan as much as possible. none of this was imposed by the capt. i think this all goes back to the schoolyard where you develop a sense of what it means to facilitate.

          human beings don’t like to be coerced or disrespected, whatever their age or station. degrees, titles, ses, knowledge, physical strength — none of these justify bullying of any kind. unfortunately, much of what passes for teaching is a form of nerdy bullying.

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