setting up the discussion problem

The problem with being a general elective with the subject matter that we cover is that not only is it the last thing students want to work on, but it’s also something that students come in thinking  (1) they already know it so it should be a breeze, and/or (2) it’s not worth their time.

This class isn’t in their major nor is it something that they selected on their own; it was probably something an adviser threw them into. In short, our audience is hostile. Oh, and did I mention that these general electives are online, asynchronous, and only lasts half a term?

Fortunately, most students (well, I’ve played around with the curriculum a bit so results are mixed) conclude the class thinking that it was actually worth their time and that every student should be required to take it. But these insights mean very little at the end of the course when students needed to be engaged at the outset.

As a designer and a teacher, I know that the design of a course can only go so far. The rest often depends on the instructor. From experience, I know that instructors can achieve success even with all the obstacles I’ve listed above. But like everything else, I want to raise the bar and make it easier for instructors to be successful.

And I think if these classes have a weak point, it’s in the discussion boards. Hint: The weakness isn’t lack of purpose.

We’ve used variations of the typical approach. Every week or so, we present a prompt for students to answer. These are held for moderation until the due date. Student posts’ are then released so that students can respond to each other. This accomplishes two things:

  • Diversity of posts; students aren’t just mimicking what their peers have written
  • No students gets the short end of the stick because there aren’t enough posts to respond to

And then most posts are pass/fail on a rubric to make grading easier on instructors along with an extra credit incentive if students participate more than what’s mandated.

This format gets students to have at least one exchange every couple weeks, and depending on the students in the class (or how they perceive their grade), you sometimes get 1-2 extra threads in a conversation. And with the right kind of participation from the instructor, it’s possible to stimulate further discussion. Obviously, a lot rides on the make-up of the class and the interventions of the instructor.

It’s actually not bad. It does exactly what it should do. But I’m never happy, and now I’d like to see students have more substantial conversations in which they develop their ideas over time (yes, that’s all I want). Maybe to frame it another way: I want them to care enough to revisit a topic and contribute additional thoughts to it without making them feel like it’s a burden.

So what does all the literature and case studies tell me about how to accomplish this? Well, I have plenty of ideas and thoughts on this, but I wanted to set up the problem that I’ve given myself to solve before I go eat lunch.

Have I mentioned that a lot of my writing is just to help me think or serve as a reference for myself?

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