Where did this project on discussion boards for the Visible Knowledge Project begin? Why, people often ask, did I choose to work with them out of all the exciting possibilities that the new technology offers? I, in fact, had other ripe options, especially my fairly glitzy Reel American History project, which has attracted some attention as one of the few web sites offering in-depth student work. There is no glamour in discussion board work, not even the satisfaction of saying, as one can sometimes say about student essays, that the award-winning “best post of the year” was done in my class! Nope, no awards for posting. No sexy web site or multi-media bonanza to awe colleagues. Just old-fashioned text and tons of it. Only hard, time-consuming, often boring, and, at faculty reward time, invisible work of tangling and untangling the half-formed ideas of novice learners.
But I think discussion boards are the most undervalued of the new technologies.
Yes, I think discussion boards are the most undervalued of the new technologies. Simply stated, if critical thinking and rethinking are central and crucial goals of liberal education, discussion is essential. Discussion is the middle space, the middle world where students discover, broaden, offer, test, nurture, incubate, and rehearse ideas. Discussion is the place where we can best see students actually in the process of thinking. Discussion is the place where we can best influence student thinking and habits of thinking. When discussion can only take place orally in a classroom during class time, only modest participation is possible in most of our classes, and, frankly, I’ll wager that for the vast majority of us discussion is invisible in our pedagogy. Who teaches the principles of good discussion? We run review sessions and provide study guides and other materials to facilitate student performance on exams. We run whole courses and sequences of courses and even organize whole departments to teach students how to write effective essays. But who teaches the principles of good discussion?
One of the things I have "discovered" in the course of this project is the depths of my passion for "community." ("Discovered" in the sense that Columbus "discovered" America -- it was always there, I guess. Maybe "revealed" would be a better term.) This project perhaps should be about improving community in the classroom instead of improving the discussion board. Community has been in my class pedagogy and class vocabulary for a long time. But the focus on discussion boards in this class took that to another level of awareness. The Reel American History project, for instance, is about community, but comparatively speaking the students still stand apart, doing solo work that then is afterwards knit together. But the discussion board is the "heart" of community itself, where bloods mingle. That feels so different to me. So much more exciting. So much more important.
Frankly, I sometimes feel obsessed with the need for community (and by that term I don't mean the touchy-feely, feel-good kind of activity some associate with it, but being part of a mass of minds working together in the search for knowledge) . When I talk about it in class, I rant like a stump orator. So much so that afterwards I feel kind of embarrassed, like I have made a spectacle of myself. Maybe it's the personal desperation associated with growing old, maybe it's the lachrymose stage of every teacher's life, maybe it's the evermore pitiful state of the world, but I feel more and more the pressing need for people to talk with each other, to get beyond difference, to work together, to get along. So, more than anything else it seems at times, I yearn for classes that yield a sense of community. As a small but hopefully non-trivial gesture, as de Certeau would say, toward the creation of a world with more community.
I have been invested in discussion board use for about seven years. In spring 1997 I co-coordinated a small one-credit graduate course called "Composition with Computers" in which a handful of us each did a project on one new computer pedagogy and published our reports together on the Composition With Computers: Lehigh's Epiphany Project web site (Wow! Both the content and the design of that site now look very old-fashioned -- we were all learning everything -- the thing is a museum-piece). My contribution was The Computer Conference: Asynchronous Writing, actually about a 30-page term paper. It is, in fact, an early VKP scholarship of teaching and learning project written with the Lehigh English faculty as the primary audience (it's structured as a series of questions), with the aim of providing practical information for those contemplating experimenting with some aspect of the new pedagogy. We had no course management systems like Blackboard or WebCT with discussion boards back then; rather, the university supplied an unthreaded "conference board." My project was based on using the conference board in two courses, one a "traditional" first-year writing class and the other a "radical" American women writers class in which I was seriously de-centered -- the point being that the new technology could work in different situations.
As I look through this "cobwebbed" document from the archives, several things jump out with relevance to the current project:
- I describe my interest in discussion boards as a "natural evolution" from and an improvement on my long-standing use of "reaction cards" (4 x 6 index cards) to engage student involvement and to stimulate class discussion. The key thing is that the move to the technology was a "bottom up" attempt to improve on a current pedagogical practice rather than some sort of "top-down" imposition or a whoring after the latest fashion.
- My statement of goals for the discussion board had a "radical" tinge to it, with claims about a free space and liberation from the teacher's agenda or ideas. I remember being very much influenced by Marilyn Cooper and Cindy Selfe's seminal article: "Computer Conferences and Learning: Authority, Resistance, and Internally Persuasive Discourse" College English 52.8 (1990): 847-69]. Resist Authority. A 60s chant! Hmmm, such things are not overt in my descriptions now, and I worry about that. "Community" not rebellion and resistance seems my catch-word. Is this natural evolution, I wonder, or heinous devolution? Have I sold out? For I believe deeply in education that is liberal, that is liberating, and I do hope the discussion board is a means to that end. I worry now, though, that, as opposed to what I did and what I encouraged in 1997, I hover incessantly over a highly structured space. Can Foucault's Panopticon work in the service of revolutionary goals?
- There's an interesting statement about community I find worth remembering: "Though I don't pretend to any systematic knowledge of what helps create a community of learners, three conditions do come to mind right away: that students get to know each other, that they feel they are listened to, that they sense the teacher is serious about yielding responsibility."
- My bottom-line comments about my personal feelings and what surprised me most about using discussion boards then have intensified:
- "Quite simply, I can't imagine teaching undergraduate courses now without a conference [discussion board] . . . . My conference history has obviously accustomed me to greater personal contact, more complex thinking, and the stimulation of a variety of voices, and without these things I now feel depressingly empty."
- "I do not find the students dehumanized. Quite the reverse. I hear their voices as I never did in prior classes. Many times I receive messages from each student 20-40 times a semester. I know students I wouldn't know otherwise because they are quiet in class. And there is a sense in which their messages seem 'personal,' even though they are on a public conference. I haven't quite figured that out yet. This feeling of humanization is the biggest surprise."
- Look how far we have come since 1997. Right to VKP's doorstep, as a matter of fact. Look how much in this previous document is about simply how to work the conference board! That's how little people knew. And then again everything is about the faculty set-up side of things. There is only one example of student learning! This VKP project is about student learning.
I have been assigning discussion boards in all my writing and literature classes as a more or less major activity (say from 20% of the final grade to 100%) for over seven years. In that period I have experimented with a number of formats, but I had never "slowed down" to assess what really was going on in that space. The time was ripe to do that. My instinct from the beginning was that discussion boards offered great opportunities. But I was always a bit dissatisfied with the results and wondered whether they were worth all the work, both by me and the students. I needed to get a better grip on what I was doing.
But one specific trigger for this project came when our assistant department chair called to my attention that in recent exit polls a goodly number of seniors voiced active dislike for discussion boards in response to a question about the types of assignments that improved their writing skills. Their comments -- which they had to go out of their way to make since conference boards were not highlighted in the question -- included the following representative discouragers:
- "I hate conference boards."
- "The conference boards were kind of pointless."
- "I was never a fan of conference boards."
- "The discussion boards did not really help me at all."
- "Discussion boards were difficult to develop writing skills in because often you are writing to someone else rather than formally."
- "Conference boards weren't very helpful in improving my writing skills, it was too informal."
- "Conference boards are nice to facilitate discussion in class but I didn't learn much from them."
- "Conference boards are annoying."
- "Conference boards were more of a nuisance than anything else."
- "I dislike conference boards because I feel like quality gets looked at less frequently than quantity and the posts often lack facts and become rambling."
- "I don't like journals or conference boards."
- "Conferencing -- not so helpful."
- "I don't like the conference board -- it forces you to answer a question and does nothing for your writing because no one takes it seriously."
Pow! Who could resist studying a situation that stimulated such negative passion in order to improve it! My intuition was that other faculty like myself, sniffing value, were assigning discussion boards without thinking them through, articulating their function to students, and integrally incorporating them into classes. Such evidence showed the need for this project. I might have the opportunity to do some good for others as well as myself.
So, for all of these reasons, off I merrily went on my VKP project!