The Documents: An Overview
Here is the ever in-progress series of documents I have developed to frame and guide discussion board work by students. Click on titles to go to these "virtual handouts" that are the backbone of my discussion board course work. They are presented here in the order in which I present them to students.
I have come to realize that discussion boards only make sense if you begin with the idea that the class is a community. Students need to think of "us," not just "me," if they are to take the discussion board seriously. Community is the point d'appui, as Thoreau would say. Without a sense of community, discussion withers. I struggled a bit with the proper term ("commmunity" sounds a bit corny to me at times), but "team" has connotations of competition and corporateness that I didn't want and "family" seemed too sentimental and just too much of a stretch for a semester's interaction. "Community" -- as opposed to what? the students sometimes say, and, rhyming for effect, I jokingly shoot back "tyranny." What we are seeking here is the opposite of the [benignly tyrannical] teacher-centered classroom. My experience is that most students are not prepared for learning community behavior and that simply having them read this document won't make it so. The idea of community must be created and continually reinforced by actions, especially in the beginning of the course. Some time necessary to establish community needs to be taken away from time given to content if the discussion board is to be an integral part of the course. I have started to call this learning community document our class "constitution." It is the very first thing I go over in class, and I refer back to it ritualistically several times in the course.
Next after establishing community as the philosophical base for using the discussion board, I feel it is necessary to give the students some general guidelines that I go over at the very beginning of the course as well. This document has grown and grown (hmm, which of these handouts hasn't?). I wish it were a bit shorter, because it takes a decent amount of time to go over in class (I have found that simply assigning it to be read doesn't work particularly well). But each of the items got there because it was a significant issue at some point in a course and I lamented not addressing it up front. Think of this document as "orientation" to my discussion board world. The items are presented as verbs or verb phrases to indicate that these are actions they should perform. The students don't "get it" all at once, of course, but at least I try to begin building a sense of familiarity with some principles of good behavior, and the list is always there when specific issues have to be addressed. At some point in the future, when discussion boards are more pervasive, such behaviors should be organic and instinctual, but, for now, I feel they must be identified and promoted.
After general guidelines come specific directions. First, on how to start a discussion. Later, on how to sustain it.
It occurred to me at a relatively late stage in project preliminaries that students would need some direction about how best to start a discussion. My sense was that for most of us discussion is a magical, spontaneous activity, both in person and online. Thoughts just strike us. A reaction jumps into your head during the give-and-take, and you run with it (and you're often simply glad that something does jump into your head). But I am moving toward stressing online discussion as conscious. The big difference between real-time discussion and online discussion is precisely more time to think out your response -- more time to be conscious. And thus I want students to reflect before posting. And if time to reflect means anything, there must be options to weigh. I wanted students to be conscious of alternatives, to be conscious of a limited but meaningful "universe" of posts from which to choose at a particular time. I was also "conscious" from anecdotal evidence as well as my own experience that one of the major complaints about discussion is that it becomes boring from repetition of ideas, from lack of variety. Hence, the more awareness about posting options, the more potential for keeping thoughtful discussion going.
I must admit that I was stumped for a good while about what scheme to float. I mean, I was not even totally "conscious" of the ways I started discussions in my own classes. More often than not, they just seemed to happen. But eventually I remembered a heuristic that I first used maybe thirty years ago for in-class discussion (and have used periodically since), one loosely based on "Bloom's taxonomy," which was then in vogue (I am not at all sure it is now). I remembered that, in fact, this heuristic worked pretty well whenever I used it. I pulled it out of my dusty archives, jazzed it up with the punning "five eyes" title, and put it in to practice. One of the things that I rather like is that I can say -- with Bloom -- that each eye represents a different kind of thinking, that I can say -- with Bloom -- that taken together the eyes, in general, represent ascending levels of thinking (analysis > synthesis > evaluation). My hope is that I can "sell" something as corny sounding as "the five eyes" to college students when they understand the varied exercise in thinking that it truly is. I wouldn't argue that the five eyes is the only or best scheme, but I do think teachers need to provide some guidance at the starting line.
The section for each eye on the linked document has gradually developed into a three-part structure. First, a short, crisp "directive" about what to do under this eye, phrased almost like it is an exam question. Second, an "elaboration" of that directive that attempts to give the students a more rounded sense of what the goal of that eye is, how it differs from the other eyes, and additional prompts about how to proceed. Third, a "bullet-list" of anything and everything that I can think of to help the students do well, like a spatial reference to help them envision where they are when using this eye (behind a work, in a work, etc.), sample topic sentences, errors to avoid, and so forth. These three sections can be given to students at once, uncoupled and given one at a time (they build on one another), or used separately. I find myself using the bullet-lists especially after assignments to highlight elements of successful and unsuccessful posts.
This document as well as the next one on response options has links to ever-changing examples of the kinds of posts described in them. I use these examples -- real examples of student posts -- for "discussion" purposes. There are no perfect models of each kind of post -- in fact, there is no one way to do each kind of post -- but my hope is that the examples will raise consciousness enough to provide a starting point for students to think and write in ways they are not used to.
My mantra: "The art of writing on the discussion board is to keep the conversation going." Ok, how not only to sustain but advance conversation? How insure that a discussion "has legs"?
The document reflects that I once again started with the premise that most people tend to reply spontaneously to posts by another. And it also reflects my past experience that often reply posts tended toward being stand-alone entities not as strongly recognizable as part of a conversation as I wanted them to. A reply post must be part of a flow coming toward it and pass that flow onward. So in this document I try to make students be conscious about being in a conversation. To start with, simply addressing and signing reply posts and beginning with transitions from the host help a person imagine ("real-ize") an audience.
But, Oh, that list of three levels and nine options -- how quixotic! I started with the idea of three levels. It seemed logical to give students some idea of poorer, middlin', and better types of responses. But I wasn't aware of anyone in my very cursory preliminary research who tackled this notion. A working group member at VKP suggested chucking the hierarchical element entirely for simply three laterally equal kinds of posts -- perhaps color-coded or something like that. Ultimately that might be the more practical way to go, but for now I'm holding on to the idea that some kinds of posts are indeed better and should be sought.
I developed the options inductively. I went back to the discussion board on a previous course and tried to look carefully at the interchanges there with the goal of categorizing the responses. At one time I had almost twenty categories, I believe, but I eventually pared that way down to the present nine (I wish I had kept the previous lists for research purposes). The larger number might be of interest to researchers, but the distinctions between the kinds of posts seemed to put much too fine a point on options to be useful in teaching students. I needed a few broad and easily understandable types that students could immediately comprehend. In fact, the nine are no doubt too many. A simple three like agreeing, enhancing, and building might be enough to make the point I want to make about posts with different values. But I'm holding on to the nine for a bit longer. I gave each of the options a verb label, hoping the vocabulary would be easily understood as actions they were performing or to perform. I imagined saying things like this to students: "See, your characteristic response is to agree, and I would like to see you do more in the way of enhancing and building."
What posts should be in what levels is a vexed issue, the kind that makes color-coding very attractive! I am absolutely not wedded to the distribution I show in the document now! I am happy with the distinction among agreeing, enhancing, and building -- I think that works. But is questioning a level 1? And disagreeing a level 3? I dunno. Since I am tentative about this grouping I have not specifically linked this categorization to grading yet but simply used it as a point of reference for stimulating different kinds of posts.
I'm reasonably happy with the "five eyes" as a way of stimulating thought about initiating discussion, but I think the response options need much more thought and experiment. I very much like the idea and value of what I'm trying to do here, but I am not so sure by any means that the current form is best.
This document as well as the one above on serving has links to ever-changing examples of the kinds of posts described in them.
This is the last in this series of handouts I think of as the backbone of my discussion board work that I actually used in the course. I call it "a list of traits to practice in discussion that help create the successful interaction required for healthy community." I am conscious, perhaps over-conscious, that the emphasis that I put on the discussion board is different than anything most students have experienced, so I have the metaphor of the non-competitive racquetball game and the mantra of keeping the conversation going. And this list complements the metaphor and mantra -- another attempt to give students an image of what working on the discussion board should be like. Specifically, I am trying to answer the question "what does a good discusser look like?" Well, he or she is a consistent and timely poster, is eager to bring up new points, learns from others, and so forth.
This list of traits is also part of the picture at evaluation time. High quality posters will be practicing these traits to a high degree. The list is part of grading criteria that includes quantitative presence on the discussion board, mastering the various serves and response options, and just generally actively contributing to creating an atmosphere conducive to better learning by all.
While reviewing the survey 2 results and the actual student work in unit 1, I realized that I had missed a pretty big and pretty important notion. I was preparing students to be conscious of what to write in a serve but not how to serve. I was not covering the whole territory.
I gradually came to realize that, as I described them on the handout and as I presented them in class, the aim of the five eyes could just as well be to produce a mini-essay -- that is, a single paragraph, unrelated to a discussion. (In fact, I have subsequently used them that way in courses run in a different manner.) I gradually came to realize that the ultimate aim of the serve, for instance, is more than just to introduce a train or a path of thought but also to seed a four- or five-step interchange. The serve must not be simply a product, but it must trigger a process. There's a way of doing a serve as well as a what to put in a serve. And students need to be conscious of both. What students need to practice as well as the five eyes is "writing conversationally" or "writing socially."
And thus I put together this additional tentative handout that I am thinking would be added to my course introduction with the other documents. It has not been tried out yet.