Comment on Summaries in Online Discussions

On the surface, the definition of a summary is straightforward. For me, it’s a concise reconstruction of the primary intent of a statement. From this perspective, we begin to realize its complexity. The difficulty is in the words “reconstruction” and “intent.” At best, we can only guess at a writer’s intent. That is, what s/he writes (sends, encodes) and what we read (receive, decode) isn’t always the same. As readers, we process (reconstruct) information based on our realities, and these may differ from the writer’s.

Confounding matters, most if not all discourse centers on ill-defined issues. When writers are sharing a wide spectrum of often conflicting opinions, summarizing becomes extremely difficult if not impossible especially if the goal is objectivity. When writers themselves aren’t clear about what they’re trying to say or aren’t taking the time to accurately represent their ideas, summary becomes a guessing game. Thus, one person’s summary of what writers A, B, and C intend may not be the same as another’s.

I’ve been a participant in a forum on headphones for years, and at one time I was quite active. Many of the discussions were lively, and the liveliest usually centered around opinions on a given set of cans (headphones). The action begins when someone starts a thread in the headphones forum, praising or condemning a specific model: “I bought headphone X, and I think it’s overpriced for it provides the best sound quality (SQ) in its price range.” This first message is called the OP or original post/poster. If the cans are popular, then both sides weigh in — defenders and attackers.

Defenders are usually the ones who’ve invested in the cans and swear by it. Attackers are usually those who bought or tested it and found it disappointing. In between are the legion who lean to one side or the other for any number of reasons. The moderator’s role is to keep the discussion from wandering off track topic (OT) or deteriorating into trolling (baiting) or a flame war.

Because the factors that impact SQ are complex, opinions are useless unless writers clarify their equipment lineup, sources, methodology (e.g., single-blind test), etc. And even when these are spelled out, there are is still an almost infinite number of other variables to consider. Thus, an active discussion on the merits and demerits of headphone X could heat up very quickly with participants misinterpreting, failing to take message context into account, or ignoring other often hidden key variables.

Perhaps the biggest problem is the latecomers who react to a single post without making the effort to review the OP and the thread. They either repeat what others have said or make OT comments. But it’s hard to blame them because the thread may have grown to 50-100 pages or hundreds of comments within a day or two.

In this environment, summaries are often inaccurate and are conscious or subconscious misinterpretations to advance a writer’s opinion. A few attempt to keep the discussion on track by summarizing relevant arguments, but these, too, tend to be inaccurate and increase rather than decrease the chaos.

This is a real-world discussion forum on headphones, but in many ways it’s similar to forums in academia, politics, and other fields. I bring it up because it raises some questions re the academic use of summaries in managing online discussions.

For me, the most important question is, Who is the summary activity for? If the answer is “for the teacher,” then I’m assuming it’s for the purpose of evaluating each student’s participation. If this is the case, then I believe it’s inefficient. There are far simpler and perhaps better ways to measure participation.

If it’s “for the student,” then my next question is, What is the learning goal? If the answer is to teach them how to summarize arguments on a controversial topic, then I feel there are simpler and perhaps better ways to do this.

If the answer is “to increase student engagement in discussions,” then my next question is, What is the purpose of the engagement? Or put another way, What are the desired outcomes of the engagement? If the answer is “the ability to engage in lively discussions” then I’d question whether the means have become ends, in essence hijacking the actual learning objective. In other words, a lively discussion, in and of itself, doesn’t necessarily serve an objective unless the experience and content is reflected in a summative performance such as a paper, presentation, or exhibit.

Finally, if the answer is “to make it easier for students to participate in and learn from discussions,” then my next question is, “Who does this justification serve? And this question leads to even more questions: Are we empowering or enabling when we, as teachers, take on the responsibility of reading and comprehending for students? In a very real sense, reading and keeping up with long complex discussion threads is extremely hard work, but isn’t this part of the sweat that goes into learning? Even as we try to help, could we actually be harming students by robbing them of the opportunity to experience authentic learning in all its chaos and struggle? What is the difference between facilitating and enabling, and on which side does summarizing fall?

In my writing classes, I assume that the ability to detect OT comments as well as personal attacks and trolling are part of the critical thinking process that includes logic and evidence testing. In their papers, I also expect students to summarize, as accurately as possible, key pro and con arguments from online class discussions. I discourage direct quotes over a few lines and require summaries even when they’re included.

I’ve raised a lot of questions, and these aren’t rhetorical for me. They’re real.

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2 Responses to Comment on Summaries in Online Discussions

  1. These are real questions for me in Shared Inquiry discussions of literature too. Especially in K-12 education, some teachers have gotten into the habit of summarizing for students as a way to keep discussions focused and on track. But as you note, summarizing is a necessary part of the work of listening and processing the contributions of others in a discussion. Plus, again as you note, the summary can be biased (consciously or not) and having the teacher restate the students’ ideas in his/ her own words may change the ideas, leading students to become less active in the future and not helping them learn to express themselves as cogently as they need to learn to do.

    One of my rules of thumb as a leader in discussion is: “turn your own reactions into questions.” If I as the leader think that a summary is needed, I can use that as a prompt to ask a (quieter) student to sum up what they’ve heard. In my experience, students are more likely to correct each other if their ideas have not been summarized properly. I’m not as sure this would translate to on-line discussions, but I think so.

  2. JimS says:

    Denise: “In my experience, students are more likely to correct each other if their ideas have not been summarized properly. I’m not as sure this would translate to on-line discussions, but I think so.”

    My apologies for the long delay in responding. I believe “turn[ing] your own reactions into questions” is the best response. Once a teacher begins to answer the questions, discussion dies and a Q&A session begins. Perhaps the idea of a “right answer” or even a “right direction” is a discussion stopper. Perhaps withholding judgment and facilitating discussions to allow students to determine direction and flow is the best way to encourage active, genuine engagement.

    However, except for one-on-one interactions with students, spontaneous group discussions that lead to the construction of new and fresh ideas are becoming increasingly difficult to generate. Students participate because they have to, for a grade, and if they have a real choice, they would opt out. They know the drill after years of schooling.

    The fact is, in the real world, the percentage of those who actively participate in public discussions is very small. The majority would rather sit back and take than give. To expect to turn this natural tendency around in a classroom is unrealistic.

    This doesn’t mean that I don’t see the value of discussion. I do. However, realistically, we have to expect that forcing everyone to “say something meaningful” simply adds a layer of artificiality to a discussion, killing any chance of spontaneity. Perhaps getting a few or even just two students to engage naturally while others “listen” and add genuine remarks here and there is all we can hope for and closer to discussions in the real world.

    In my F2F classes years ago, as a student and as a teacher, this is how I remember some of the most stimulating discussions. They were often dialogues between two or three students with the prof stepping back and facilitating when the flow faltered. The rest of the students became audience, and they seemed engaged but not verbally.

    One possibility is to add a social networking back channel for students to text and share their thoughts re the ongoing verbal discussion — and piping the results onto screens around the classroom or simply allowing students to participate via mobile devices and notebooks. This could be done with asynchronous discussions, too. -Jim S

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