Building a New Approach to Online Discussions

working-in-snow-620x826Earlier this semester, I experimented with a “virtual class” on a day when snow closed down the college. Had there been class, students would have discussed a reading in small groups. Typically during these sessions, students spend roughly 2/3 of the class period working through discussion questions. The final 1/3 is spent debriefing with the entire class, hearing from the groups directly and collectively filling in the blanks. On the snow day, I figured that students could use GChat and Google Docs to collaboratively answer these same discussion questions, allowing me to use this time productively and not have to push my course schedule back. Students connected with their groups over GChat and typed answers on a Google document that was shared with me.

Jumping ahead in time, I am currently putting together the first midterm in this course. As I debate the set of questions to put on the exam, I am reflecting on what was actually accomplished during this virtual class. It was a way to get something out of this brief period of time when I knew that students could get together, and it enabled me to keep the course on schedule. But what did the activity accomplish aside from these basic goals? Could I be confident that students understood the key components of the reading? Could I know who was driving the discussion, who contributed to the final answers, and who simply was passively along for the ride?

Upon reflection, I cannot answer any of these questions. While the activity was not a total waste, it did not successfully mimic the learning that would have occurred in a regular class; it did not allow me to assess the degree to which students understood and appreciated the reading. As a result, I do not feel comfortable including questions about this reading on the exam.

I know that I, with the help of technology, can do much better. I am seeking to substantially enhance my approach to online discussions, with the dual goals of “snow-day-proofing” my courses and creating modular discussion-based assignments that can take place in, or out of, class. In the initial stages, I am taking a content-free approach, thinking about general best practices, methods of instruction and tools of assessment that help me think through the various challenges and strategies for dealing with them. How can I assess relative contributions? How can I develop ground rules, and provide instructions to encourage full participation and successful collaboration? How can I use chat transcripts to help me answer these questions without being overly intrusive? What would a successful transcript look like, and how can I model successful collaboration for students at the start of a semester? What kind of rubric can I use to set expectations?

The sheer number of these important questions (all of which have to be answered if this approach is to reach its potential) tells me that this journey will not be an easy one. But the payoffs are potentially high enough to make an initial time commitment well worth it.

Image Credit: Susan Dickerson-Lange

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