Authenticity in Online Class Discussions: A Response to Rachael

In her 9/26/13 TOMOOC response to Munwah, Rachael I. said: “. . . To support the needs and aspirations of adult learners, we need to help our students engage in collaborative and authentic learning so that learning is meaningful and purposeful and utilizes their previous experiences. I’m interested in learning more about authentic learning activities instructors incorporate in their college courses. Do you do any in your classes?”

Response

The focus in TOMOOC’s third week1 is interaction in online discussion forums, and Moore’s2 classification may be a good place to start. He identifies three types of interaction: learner-learner, learner-teacher, and learner-content. In my mind, learner-content is not a true interaction and should perhaps be lumped together with learner-teacher. Thus, the two main categories are learner-learner and learner- teacher.

In VCU’s3, Weaver’s4, and Ragan’s5 rubrics, the overwhelming pattern seems to be student-teacher, with student-student receiving little or no attention. And even when student-student is mentioned, the standards appear to be vague, almost an afterthought. Here’s an example from the VCU rubric: “The best discussion posts are made in time for others to read and respond.” In Weaver’s scheme, a successful student “constructively responds to classmates postings” and “participates in all module discussions.” Ragan’s list reads like a bunch of criteria for an essay test, with interaction limited to student-teacher.

Thus, the implication is that discussions are primarily “tests” to indirectly measure learning, an evaluation tool rather than a student-student medium for building a community of learners.

The heart of an authentic discussion activity is real-world outcomes — and I don’t mean grades. That is, students need to know that they’re not simply posting whatevers that will earn them a good score from the teacher. They need to know that their ideas will be useful to others in their learning community, that they’re not engaging in busy work just to make the teacher happy.

A simple way to do this is to design (1) writing assignments that require quotes from classmates as well as from published sources and (2) forums that generate postings that could be quoted by classmates. In short, the discussion activities need to be tied to the writing in such a way that they provide a source of content.

The most critical element in the design is the topic.  It must have a built-in potential to grab every student at an affective level, and it must be in the realm of knowledge that is both familiar and new at the same time. Furthermore, the familiar can’t be so overdone that it’s dead, and the new can’t be so unfamiliar that it would take weeks to grasp the bare essentials. (Hint: Incorporate YouTube videos!)

The interaction in this scenario is student-student, students writing for classmates and quoting them in return. The authenticity is in the real-world purpose and consequences. Ideas are quoted and argued in papers, and papers are published in blogs for all to read. The sense of community is in the common purpose and value of everyone’s words in the creation of artifacts for sharing within the community.

__________
1Week 3: Create community: Connect learners with each other (Sept. 23-29).”
2 M. G. Moore, “Editorial: Three types of interaction” (The American Journal of Distance Education, 1989) in Steve Wheeler’s “Interactions of the fourth kind” (Learning with ‘e’s, 4/8/12).
3Using Discussion Boards in Online Classes” (Virginia Commonwealth University, 09/22/2009).
4 Chris Weaver, “The Discussion Board Book” (2005).
5 Larry Ragan, “Best Practices in Online Teaching – During Teaching – Assess Messages in Online Discussions” (Connexions, 8/21/07).

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One Response to Authenticity in Online Class Discussions: A Response to Rachael

  1. Rachael says:

    Thank you, Jim! I like how you involve students’ work to make activities more authentic. Yes, as teachers we need to create authentic learning opportunities so students find value in their learning and not to just “get a grade.” Maybe they’ve been conditioned that way. I have to admit, reflecting on my school years, that I’ve done the work to get the grade not because I really wanted to learn about x, y, and z. I went to school because I had to and it was expected from my parents to do well. Maybe as children that push is needed (because we may not know any better), but as adult learners we should know better and we need to be self-directed learners.

    Learners’ intentions to learn need to change and although we as teachers cannot do that for them, we can provide the learning conditions to support them. The tricky part is in applying these good teaching principles, methods, etc. to design optimum conditions for learning (i.e. authentic learning activities, interaction, community, rapport, etc.) and I think that comes with experience too. I understand how overwhelming this can be for teachers (as it is for me), but I think the key is to start with something because you’ll learn more along the way through your very own authentic experience. And I find it valuable to have a community of teachers (on campus or online through a mooc or PLN) to learn from and share with because teachers need support and help too.

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