Can We Make Online (Graduate School) Discussions Suck Less?

Unsplash Image from Juliette Leufke
Unsplash Image from Juliette Leufke

As many of you know, and have probably experienced, discussions in online classes can be notoriously bad.

At best, many online courses feign discussion as a pseudo-cooperative (and not a collaborative, generative) task, and students engage because they are required to connect with the content and with one another.

At worst, the tasks are perfunctory and just for points.

This student summed it up quite well:

7. Responding to Fellow Students

Hi, I don’t know you, but I’m required to respond to your post so we can all act like we give a shit about what each other has to say. Great, good one sided talk, keep up the good work.

NOBODY CARES. This is not real participation. It doesn’t even make sense, if you want students to actively have a discussion about something, then do it. But to just say respond to two other students, it’s like talking to a wall. Most students won’t read their responses, and if they do they won’t care enough to do anything about it.

So, yes, we would hope that students would see online discussion in a different light, no doubt.

Yet, we can’t be angry at the student, since it is we, as the instructors, who create the tasks. But, our discussion design is, usually, a variation on the notorious Initiate-Respond-Evaluate (IRE) pattern, only we substitute the students’ peer responses for our own.

This is a teaching problem.

Why does it happen? Alex Halavais, blogger and professor at Arizona State University describes the problem of learning how to teach online this way:

Few schools require “traditional” faculty to teach online, though they may allow or even encourage it. As a result the best teachers are not necessarily trying to figure out how to make online learning great. We are left with the poor substitute of models coming from industry (modules teaching employees why they should wear a hair net) and the cult of the instructional designer.

So, as online instructors — especially those of us who are tenured faculty — we need to do better.

Good online discussions can happen, if we plan them intentionally. And, there are ways to do it.

As Darabi et al summarized in this meta-analysis:

In summary, based on these findings one can conclude that for online discussion to be an effective instructional tool, it needs to have structure, elements of interaction, a certain level of complexity, task orientation, clear expectations, and personal involvement of the instructor in the course and her/his personal interaction with students.

I appreciate these categories as a way to think about online discussion, and I would add one more element: we need to focus on texts (literally, on text as words, but also on texts in the form of image and video). Students need to talk about something, in context, not just try to randomly transfer their ideas into an online forum with no reference to the text under discussion.

To that end, I am using NowComment as a tool for discussion because I believe that it allows me the opportunity, as the instructor, to set the task and expectations, and it allows students all to engage in conversation with one another around the text itself, at a deeper level of complexity.

And, this is especially important at the masters and doctoral level. The heart of graduate study is to engage, deeply, with these complex issues.

This requires us to rethink our teaching, as noted in this Chronicle essay by Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University. He argues that the main point for graduate seminar discussions is to support two learning goals: transfer and retention. He makes the point this way (emphasis mine):

How might graduate professors teach in order to promote the sensible goals of knowledge transfer and retention?

We have to start by reverse-engineering from those concepts. But there’s the rub: Most graduate teachers don’t want to do that. As self-styled defenders of the last bastion of teacher-centered curriculum, many professors in graduate school want to cover “content” and consider anything else to be a distraction.

I am not suggesting that we abandon the work of the discipline, of course. Graduate students have to read a lot to learn their fields, and nothing is going to change that. But they also have to be able to work with what they’ve read. Seminar leaders therefore need to leave enough time not just to “cover” material but also for students to practice doing things with it. As Robert Frost once said, “It’s knowing what to do with things that counts.

Thus, over the years — both in classrooms and online, but especially online — I have continued to work to make sure that we are not just learning the things, but learning what to do with the things.

To the extent that I am able, I structure discussions have a clear purpose, expectations for turn-taking, and a timeline. With the past few online courses I have taught, I am learning to do this with even more intent. I take time to set up the documents in NowComment, to frame the task, and to set (minimal) expectations for participation. For masters and doctoral students in online courses, I think that these are reasonable ways to initiate a decent discussion and to get students intellectually engaged.

One of my master’s students from last semester described our process in this way:

The most beneficial learning activity for me was using NowComment each week. I prefer to use this format over the Blackboard discussion board because I can find very specific areas of discussion and don’t have to continually click back to a source to discuss it.

So, that was encouraging.

But, right now, I’m struggling.

I am teaching an online doctoral seminar this semester, and I have been trying to scaffold thoughtful discussions around one text and one video each week. I set up the conversations in a protocol-like manner, and  I have been sharing resources like the 50 Questions and Critical Thinking Cheatsheet to help them ask critical (but, kind) questions of one another.

The goal is twofold: they should be talking about the content, yes, but they should also be talking with each other. This is what academics do, and I am trying to intentionally scaffold the process for them as graduate students. NowComment is the best tool that I have found in order to meet these purposes.

And, moreover, for any of them who will be teaching online, I want them to use these types of thoughtful, engaging discussion techniques with your students, too. Part of the purpose of our program is to help them become researchers, yes, and to help them become practitioners of educational technology, too.

Yet, I’m still struggling.

A few are participating regularly, and with purpose. Some are participating. Many are not participating at all.

Earlier this week, I tried to call them out, while I also acknowledged the complexity of their lives:

So I know that we are all busy, all the time.

On the go, on the move, on the run.

Pick your euphamism: our lives are *&%#@! busy. 

And, I can understand that we are all going to have “off” weeks.

You’ve got family in town. You’ve got exams to grade. You got sick. I totally understand. 

As I tried to make clear in my announcement earlier this week, your active, critical, and thoughtful participation in discussion is a key component of your doctoral education. It’s how you retain and transfer information. It’s how you build relationships. It’s how you stake a claim and establish your stance as a researcher. 

NowComment is our place to do those things.

In short, I’m trying to be clear about my rationale for having them participate.

Still, participation is stagnant.

I need some help.

So, I ask… any ideas (both technological and pedagogical) for making online (grad school) discussions suck less?


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Updates from Our Book: Argument in the Real World

Image courtesy of Heinemann
Image courtesy of Heinemann

As a writer — both in the sense that I am a blogger and the author of texts for teachers — I am well aware of the fact that writing is never really “done,” it is just “due.” I am thankful that I have the opportunity to keep writing, keep sharing, keep updating. It is as important now as it has ever been.

When my colleague and co-author, Kristen Turner, and I were putting the finishing touches on our book, Argument in the Real World, last summer, we knew that the world would be experiencing digital arguments in many ways across the closing months of the US 2016 election cycle. However, we had no idea that “fake news” or “alternative facts” would become part of the Orwellian discourse. Over the past few months, the incredible team at Heinemann has been sharing a number of posts and videos related to the book:

They also helped us refine the MINDFUL poster:

How to teach students to be MINDFUL readers and writers of social media.
How to teach students to be MINDFUL readers and writers of social media.

Finally, here is a video in which I demonstrate how students can remix existing news content to analyze the implicit arguments presented in the news.

As teachers continue to work with their students to overcome the many challenges we continue to face with media literacy, we will continue to update the book’s wiki page and share more ideas. My hope is that this collection of resources is a good place to begin those difficult lessons and conversations.


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Rethinking a Wiki vs LMS for Course Design

CC0 Public Domain image by kaboompics on Pixabay.
CC0 Public Domain image by kaboompics on Pixabay.

Last year, when I first taught EDU 807, “Learning Tools in Education Technology,” one of my goals was to employ a wiki as a learning management system (LMS) so the doctoral students involved in the course could participate in a more open, collaborative form of social scholarship. I have long been an advocate of using wikis as an organizational space for my face-to-face classes and in professional development workshops, and it made sense to me that students involved in a doctoral program about educational technology tools would be able to adapt the wiki for their own uses as individuals and in small groups, and to collaborate in innovative ways.

One of the other elements of this course was that I asked students – both individually and in small groups – to regularly move across a variety of educational technology tools. For instance, we used at least a dozen different technologies including the wiki, Google Docs, VoiceThread, Vialogues, and (the now defunct) Zaption. There was also an attempt to integrate Twitter as a back channel conversation throughout the semester.

The ideal, however, met the reality of teaching an online course to busy professionals, and the struggle to move between spaces began to cause confusion and frustration. For all of us, the management of so many different tools was a challenge: Where are we discussing the readings this week? What is due next? Where is the link for that article?

My end-of-semester course evaluations reflected the types of concerns that students felt as they moved across so many tools in such quick succession. While they generally enjoyed and appreciated the course, it was clear that using the wiki in the way that I envisioned was one step too many, even for students in a doctoral program exploring ed tech. Sadly, our attempts to make use of the wiki on a regular basis quickly fell to the wayside. Also, as an instructor, I struggled to keep a balance with students turning in their work, providing feedback, updating the online gradebook in our normal LMS, Blackboard, and – on top of that – managing revisions and late assignments.

In short, my best efforts at using the wiki as an open, collaborative space for students to generate their own shared understandings of the course material and to create social scholarship became an unnecessary burden. In rethinking the course for this spring, then, I struggled to figure out how I would push back against the practices and discourses of the standard course management system while, at the same time, updating my course for this spring so as to avoid massive confusion on behalf of my students.

Hence, I am returning to our university’s LMS as the “hub” of our course activities. I struggle with this for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I’m trying to teach doctoral students how to employ a variety of educational technology tools – building on collaborative, open source ethos – and yet I must return to an LMS that has a decidedly centered to the tool. I also struggle because I want students to know that social scholarship (openness, collaboration, messiness) does not always work on distinct the context of “taking” a course (modules, assignments, grades).

However, I will keep the idea of being “open” moving forward by asking students to blog on a regular basis, as well as to post additional course assignments as artifacts on their own digital portfolios. Also, we will use Twitter as a way to comment upon one another’s work, as well as to share ideas from other scholars.

I am not particularly pleased about having to give up on using a wiki, and yet at the same time I think by centralizing and streamlining many of the more mundane class activities in the LMS, I will be better able to help my students focus on broader goals of social scholarship and critically evaluating educational technologies. So, wish me luck as I reboot EDU 807 this semester!


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Conversation about Connected Reading on LitBit Podcast

Connected Reading Model
Connected Reading Model

Many thanks to Brooke Cunningham, creator of the LitBit podcast and a doctoral student in the University of Tennessee PhD in young adult literature program, for inviting Kristen Turner and me to share our thoughts on Connected Reading with her listeners. Please listen to and share the episode!

Conversation about Research Writing Rewired on NWP Radio

Last night, my friend, colleague, and co-author — Dawn Reed — and I were featured on the National Writing Project’s weekly podcast, NWP Radio. Enjoy this episode in which we discuss the interwoven themes of reading, writing, and technology through a conversation about our book, Research Writing Rewired.

http://percolate.blogtalkradio.com/offsiteplayer?hostId=82909&episodeId=8896545


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Exploring the Design of a Digital Writing Assignment

Digital Writing Assignment Created by Elizabeth Gates (Front Page)
Digital Writing Assignment Created by Elizabeth Gates (Front Page)

During the month of May, my friend and Chippewa River Writing Project colleague Beth Gates has been working with her 11th grade students on a digital writing assignment. Many years ago, she began teaching a digital essay based on an idea from Jim Burke and shared on the English Companion Ning. I featured Beth’s work — as well as that of her students — in my book, Crafting Digital Writing and you can find two sample essays that her students created as an analysis of Death of a Salesman on the companion wiki.

This year, Beth has worked to develop an extensive assignment that leads students, first, though a MMAPS planning document that will help them identify their audience, purpose, and specific uses of media. She then asks them to identify a mentor text and to complete a Google Form that will help them see different traits in the digital writing they are analyzing. She has also created a rubric for the entire project that features categories such as genre, audience, purpose, structure, structure, digital elements, and conventions.

One of the challenges that Beth’s work is trying to address involves quantifying the work her students need to do. Through an email exchange earlier this spring, we discussed some of the potential areas that she could have her students focus upon including the balance between written words, embedded features that utilize existing resources, and additional media that she would ask students to create. Here are some components of the assignment worth noting:

  • Minimum 500 words in the form of written, alphabetic text. This writing will take
    the form of actual sentences and paragraphs.
  • Minimum of 10 innovative features (created by you or copy/pasted from sources) including hyperlinks, multimedia links, embedded notes, discussion platforms, definition links, text-to-speak options, additional search extensions, infographics, images, sound, video clips, and other interactive elements.
  • Students would also need to create an additional piece of digital writing. This can take one of three forms:
    • Option 1: Using digital audio or video, you can prepare a script and record a radio-style story, an interview, a digital story, or other audio/video mode.
    • Option 2: Using at least 3 of your own original drawings or photos, you can use digital imaging tools such as Photoshop to manipulate these images and present them with your written text.
    • Option 3: Using a tool such as Piktochart or Infogr.am, you can create an infographic which includes an analysis of numerical data.

Beth’s work to design this assignment as one that is academically rigorous and still personally meaningful for students is laudable. In fact, I really appreciate the way that she built in the distinction for students surrounding “innovative features” (essentially linking to someone else’s work or asking for audience interaction, both reasonable expectations of digital writing) and also asking students to create an additional piece of digital writing in the form of audio/video, image, or infographic. More than just copying someone else’s work (or linking to it) or asking their peers to respond to that work, Beth is having her students compose digital writing that moves beyond alphabetic text, and to do so in an academically appropriate manner.

My one concern — and I recognize that this comes straight from my position in the ivory tower — is that asking students to quantify everything in their digital writing leads down a slippery slope. As Kristen Turner and I have argued in “No Longer a Luxury: Digital Literacy Can’t Wait,”

Setting a minimum number of slides, images, transitions, links, or other digital elements in student projects does little to improve digital literacy. In much the same way that some of the most reductive writing pedagogy has created patterns (five paragraphs of five sentences each, for instance), we now see similar trends happening with slide shows, websites, digital stories, and other types of digital writing projects. Rather than focusing on content—and developing an appropriate message—the assignments focus on the most basic elements of form: the things that can be counted. (60)

So, on the surface, it would appear that I would not be in favor of Beth’s assignment design. After all, she is counting words and innovative features.

Still, I recognize the dilemma that she is — and all K-12 teachers are — in as we shift into data-driven decision making in schools. We have to count something.

In this case, then, I can see what Beth is doing as a step (or two, or ten) in the right direction because she isn’t just handing students an assignment sheet and asking them to write 500 words and include 10 innovative features and then to make a podcast, photo essay, or infographic. She is scaffolding them through the entire process. Here is a description of her month-long unit that she shared with me:

  • April 27-28: Writing Notebook work on Writing Territories, short writes, topics, and playing with ideas.
  • April 29: Introduce the MMAPSS and model it
  • May 2-3: Students work individually on their own MMAPSS Planning Guide (Due May 3)
  • May 4: Students commit to a topic, genre, purpose, and audience. They use remaining time to explore different Media ideas (see MMAPSS)
  • May 5-6: Introduce and model a mentor text study using two different genres–share student projects from previous years
  • May 9-13: Students must complete 4-6 Mentor Text Study Sheets (differing number because of team-taught kids). Due on Monday, May 16
  • May 16-18: Writing a rough draft. Individual conferences with all students at least 1-2 times (some more).
  • May 19: Introduce digital elements as (1) Required–reader needs for comprehension, think of like a footnote; (2) Extended–reader has the option to delve deeper into the topic or idea through additional information or ideas on the topic; (3) Optional–author considers the needs of an unintended audience or a small segment of the audience. This wouldn’t be needed for most.
  • May 20: Peer to peer and teacher to student conferencing (with a few to finish on Monday)
  • May 23: Introduce bibliography vs. Work Cited and tools such as Easybib, Knight Cite, Citation Machine, etc.
  • May 24-May 27: Continue revision and conferencing with students. Final Product due on May 27

While she is still in the process of having students submit their final products, she has shared some of the MMAPS planning guides from a number of students: Lauren, Noah, Adrienne, Gabe, Mattie, Kyle. Their choices in mode/genre range from informational texts to fantasy stories, and they will use a variety of media including blogs, websites, and existing fan fiction sites. Their critical, careful evaluation of audience, purpose, and situation suggests that they will, indeed, craft very effective pieces of digital writing.

All in all, I appreciate Beth’s work with her students and recognize the pinch that she is in, both needing to demonstrate connections to standards and also making assessment manageable. I will be curious to see how her students’ work turns out and to continue reflecting on the project with her in the weeks ahead. In the mean time, the assignment resources she provides on her wiki page are robust and will provide us all with plenty to read as we think about designing our own digital writing tasks.


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Tech Risks and Rewards During a Closing Keynote

Photo by Breana Yaklin @BreanaYaklin
Photo by Breana Yaklin @BreanaYaklin

Yesterday, I was invited to deliver the closing keynote for CMU’s Great Lakes Conference on Teaching and Learning. It was the 9th annual event and, oddly enough, also the end of my ninth academic year here at CMU… and I had never attended before. So, it was a great combination of a familiar audience filled with many colleagues from CMU and other institutions in Michigan while, at the same time, a new venue for me to present because most of my work with higher ed colleagues comes in the form of smaller workshops, not keynote addresses.

Moreover, I was trying to summarize and synthesize ideas from as many of the other conference sessions as possible building on the theme of Engaging All Learners in Today’s “Classroom,” with the scare quotes intentionally placed around that word. Knowing that the classroom — even in fairly traditional, face-to-face settings — involves so much more than just the time you have with students at one moment, in one setting, I wanted to show how a variety of technologies could be used to enhance literacy instruction. So, before the presentation even began, there was a handout on their tables explaining a bit about what we would be doing.

Thus, I built my presentation using Nearpod, and had hoped that my 100+ colleagues would all be able to use it. This was a risk for me, being generally new to Nearpod and having never used it in a keynote. So, as I launched in, the technology gremlins took over. In that moment, I quickly found out that my “gold” account status only allowed 50 participants. It was a technical limitation that I hadn’t even thought about before hand, but certainly should have given similar limitations with other tools like Poll Everywhere.

Still, we were able to soldier on — and I had prepared for some technical difficulties by providing short link URLs to different online activities such as a discussion using Padlet for a visual literacy exercise and a critical thinking activity with Google Docs. I also paused periodically throughout the presentation to remind my colleagues that these technologies can provide us and our students with unique opportunities for sharing and collaborating, but ink and paper can also work just fine as we work to build their skills with disciplinary literacies.

On the whole, I felt as if the audience gave off a good vibe and — despite some technical difficulties — the combination of literacy-based activities with relatively easy-to-use technologies worked well. My fear was that it would be too much, too overwhelming. And, while I could see and hear that concern from some audience members, it seemed as though many people were able to participate. One person commented on the fact that it was good I had the shortened URLs available as a backup.

So, I will continue to take risks with technology. Given that there were many of my CMU colleagues in the audience, I wanted them to see that even the tech experts sometimes try and fail, and then try again. Also, with many of our DET students there, I wanted them to know that I was practicing what I had been teaching all semester long in EDU 807, making an attempt to model creative technology use with practical, pedagogical skills. I am glad that I took the risk, and I hope that the audience felt the same.


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