In his article, “Critical Thinking in Asynchronous Discussions” (International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, June 2005), Greg mentions the work that researchers at PSU have been doing with “guest facilitators.” By coincidence, in 1995, Morton Cotlar and I wrote a chapter* for a book that featured PSU’s Gerry Phillips as an electronic guest lecturer in Morton’s UH Manoa class. The lectures were delivered and the discussions were conducted via email. We measured the amount of engagement that Gerry and two other guest lecturers generated and compared the results. Gerry won, hands down.
We attributed his success to his informal and colloquial style — in contrast to the formal, academic style of the others. However, perhaps the more telling element was Gerry’s ability to connect with each student. He knew, from the voice and persona embedded in the student’s text, where the student was coming from and aimed his comments where s/he stood. Gerry’s aim was consistently true, and he drew out the authentic thinker within each student. Students responded with numerous in-depth, thoughtful messages, and Gerry responded to these, too, creating individual threads with each. In stark contrast, the other lecturers received only a few responses that didn’t develop into threads. These lecturers tended to focus on their own answers and ideas and gave little thought to the students as individuals with unique histories and perspectives.
These interactions occurred in email 17 years ago. Today, we tend to use public social networking forums. I sometimes wonder what the results would have been if the exchanges had taken place in a forum. My guess is that Gerry’s style would still be a winner. He was a genius at engaging students. He challenged them with ideas that forced them to reconsider their own positions in the light of alternatives. He used the Socratic method, but he also used basic critical and creative thinking methods to stimulate fluid and flexible thought. The methods, of course, were important, but knowing when and how to use the right ones was critical. In other words, the prescription had to fit the malady. Even though the basic interaction was a dialogue between teacher and student, I can imagine other students jumping in and turning dialogues into extended and expanded threads.
The point here, I think, is that creating and sustaining successful discussions is an extremely complex phenomenon. One of the key factors is the ability to read between the lines and really understand where each student is coming from. To do this, a teacher would have to be a very perceptive reader. (Remember those American and British Lit classes where you were asked to analyze and interpret poems, shortstories, essays, novels?) Next, s/he would have to be able to engage the student at the precise point where her need-to-know is highest. Too far back, and the student is bored; too far ahead, and she’s frustrated. A teacher would have to be a strong and versatile writer with the ability to adopt a voice or persona that will draw the student into discussion. (Remember your freshman comp teacher’s repeated admonitions to consider audience and to adjust your style accordingly?)
Finally, all the discussion in the world, regardless of how lively and engaging it is, is irrelevant if its impact on learning can’t be easily measured. Assuming that the purpose isn’t simply to have a lively discussion but to become better informed about the various arguments, pro and con, around an ill-defined issue, a summative activity might involve a paper in which the student is asked to decide on the “best” position. It could include a review of what she considers the most critical arguments made by classmates and writers as well as an analysis of the logic and evidence on each side. An emphasis would be placed on the ideas shared in the discussion. In this way, students can see a clear relationship between the discussion and the learning.
As we rely increasingly on the latest technology to improve pedagogy, we need to continually remind ourselves that effective teaching is an extremely complex activity. Technology can facilitate it, but it can’t do it. There are no easy answers. In fact, as in most performing arts, the more we learn about teaching, the more we realize how little we actually know.
* “Stimulating Learning with Electronic Guest Lecturing,” in Berge and Collins’ Computer-Mediated Communications and the Online Classroom (Hampton Press, 1995).