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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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!

Posting, Probing, and Reflecting on Conversations with NowComment

now-comment-screenshot
Screenshot of my class’s discussion with Now Comment

So, I know I’m a little bit late to the web, image, and video annotation phenomenon that’s taken place over the last few years. I’ve talked a little bit about it in some of the pieces that I’ve written on Connected Reading, but I haven’t really been an avid user simply because it couldn’t quite figure out ways to integrate it fully into the courses I was teaching. This fall, however, I jumped in feet first and the particular tool that I have chosen to invest my (and my students’) time in is NowComment.

I was made aware of the impending changes to NowComment’s text-only to image and video annotation features earlier this year when Dan Doernberg was featured on the Teachers Teaching Teachers weekly webcast (below). I very much appreciate – especially this week – Dan’s mission as founder of Fairness.com:

“Beginning with the 2008 Election, our focus shifted to improving some of the fundamental “cultural infrastructure” that makes it far too easy for the powerful to take advantage of the less powerful. NowComment®, a software tool that facilitates in-depth, intellectually honest discussion of complex documents, is the first of several such projects.”

As a teacher of writing and educational technology, I have been quite impressed with the features that NowComment offers. In addition to a user-friendly interface, NowComment’s ability for me to look back through threaded discussions and to sort my students comments individually has been immeasurably helpful. As I think about designing the discussion task, looking for ways to optimize student learning, I know that I will be able to do this kind of advanced sorting when I prepare to evaluate their participation.

And, for me, this is the crux of online (or face-to-face) commenting/annotation. We want to invite and encourage conversation, not just comments. I have shared with my masters students (mostly teachers and professional educators in other fields) a few additional resources to help them move the conversations forward, and this is what I am playing with more and more each week. For instance:

  • In forming their initial response to the readings/viewings for the week, I am asking the teachers to use Terry Heick’s “19 Reading Response Questions For Self-Guided Response.”
  • As they engage with others, I ask them to consider the National School Reform Faculty’s “Probing Questions” protocol as they push their classmates’ thinking.
  • Finally, as they reflect each week, I am asking them to pull specific examples from the conversation on NowComment into their discussion board postings (in Blackboard).

And this is just the start of my thinking.

I’m sure that there are other all even more robust ways that I can blend thoughtful pedagogical approaches to discussion with the numerous tools that NowComment offers. I’ve shared this tool with a few other faculty members, and I’m thinking about ways that I can integrate it more fully into future courses and professional development that I offer. I wonder:

  • How else are we thoughtfully connecting the teaching moves of conversation with technologies for annotation?
  • In what ways we help our students use these tools to “listen,” and not just annotate, deeply and empathetically?
  • How can the conversations that happen around documents then transfer into deeper, more substantial learning through additional writing and reflection?

These are the questions that continue to drive me forward as I watch my students post, probe, and reflects using NowComment this semester.

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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Propose a Session for CMU’s GLCTL

GLCTL Logo
Great Lakes Conference on Teaching and Learning

I am privileged to speak at many conferences and appreciate the many opportunities that I have to connect and collaborate with colleagues.

One such event that I am particularly pleased to announce — because I have been invited as a keynote speaker — is from my own university, Central Michigan University, for their upcoming Great Lakes Conference on Teaching and Learning.

We are currently seeking proposals (through Monday, January 25th), so please consider applying!

Review of Amplify by Katie Muhtaris and Kristin Ziemke

For a number of years now, I have been wanting to provide elementary colleagues with a book that offers a glimpse inside a classroom that runs as a digital writing workshop, one that truly embraces the principles of writing workshop pedagogy while integrating digital writing tools into day-to-day literacy practices. I have been fortunate to connect with many elementary educators who embrace the writing workshop approach with digital writing tools, but hadn’t yet seen a book that captured, in words and images, what a digital writing workshop might look like.

Amplify! Digital Teaching and Learning in the K-6 Classroom By Katie Muhtaris, Kristin Ziemke
Amplify! Digital Teaching and Learning in the K-6 Classroom By Katie Muhtaris, Kristin Ziemke

Then, last year, I found out that Katie Muhtaris and Kristin Ziemke were working on a book to be based on some of the techniques and strategies they share in their blog, “Innovate Ignite Inspire.” Knowing that they were doing this kind of smart work with their kids, I have been eagerly awaiting their book. The result is Amplify: Digital Teaching and Learning in the K-6 Classroom.

Now, having met Kristin quite some time ago at a Michigan Reading Association conference, I knew that she was an educator who was a bit skeptical about the use of technology, but wanted to integrate tech in productive, responsible ways. Or, as Stephanie Harvey describes it in the foreword of the book, though Katie had been enthusiastically integrating technology in her classroom for number of years and, subsequently, Kristin would “peek in, curious about how tech platforms might enhance learning in her first-grade classroom, but not entirely convinced” (vii).

Just as its title suggests, Katie and Kristin’s book does not supersede or replace existing literacy practices with technology-enhanced lessons. Instead, their goal is, indeed, to amplify best practices in reading and writing workshop, modeling literacy practices for their students, and moving them toward a hybridity of reading and writing in both print and digital spaces. As they explain:

Digital learning is at a crossroads, and it’s time for teachers and students to share our voices in how, why, and when our kids should use technology as a learning tool. We invite you to join us on a journey of discovery, exploration, and empowerment. (xii)

Their core principles are ones with which I, and countless other teachers, would certainly agree:

  • Use a workshop model for instruction
  • Hold small-group and individual conferences
  • Engage kids in cross-curricular content
  • Scaffold learning
  • Encourage collaboration and conversation
  • Drive instruction with assessment

These principles align with their overarching goal — “Technology in the classroom fits easily into this hands-on approach to learning (the writing workshop): our students should be the ones using it” (5).

They back these principles up with numerous examples, and I especially appreciate the way that they create “technology anchor charts” in much the same way they would when exploring a new genre, discussing reading strategies, or documenting a process. Also, they describe how they adapt the workshop model by adding in the element of “play” before a mini lesson. “Play,” they contend, “is collaborative, experiential, tactile, and active,” all ideas that lend themselves well to using technology (33).

The book itself takes the voice that we have come to expect in all Heinemann titles — respectful of teachers’ time, knowledge, and needs for high-quality professional learning and growth. Rather than providing a buffet of tech tools, Katie and Kristin actually focus their efforts on just a few key tools and processes: capturing ideas with Padlet, engaging students in a backchannel with Today’s Meet, teaching them how to record voice and video with a webcam and microphone. Throughout the book, there are suggestions that a teacher can “try tomorrow” with minimal technology knowledge.

As the book comes to a close, they share insights on reflection and assessment. Regardless of any number of digital tools at their disposal, Katie and Kristin remind us that

The simple act of giving ourselves permission to stop and watch opens our eyes to the rich fabric of learning in our classroom. We can examine the quality of the tasks we ask our students to undertake. What impact do they have? Why is this important? How can this be better? (90)

Amplify has provided elementary teachers a glimpse into the workings of what I would call a digital writing workshop and what Franki Sibberson has recently begun to call a “digital reading workshop” in Digital Reading: What’s Essential in Grades 3-8. Though I am curious as to why Katie and Kristin do not use that language, I imagine that they avoid adding the “digital” label to the work that they do for good reason — to keep the focus on reading and writing, thinking and learning. As we all continue to think about ways in which we can purposefully bring technology into the K-6 classroom, Amplify provides us with both the principles and practices for doing so.

NOTE: While I am a Heinemann author and did request a complimentary copy of this book, please know I am writing this review independently, not at the request of Heinemann or the authors.

Update: 12/10/15, 11:33 PM – Katie was kind enough to point out that I transposed two letters in “Padlet,” so that has been corrected.


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