One ubiquitous suggestion about discussion boards, especially in online classes, is that students have some free space where they can gather informally for "corridor chatter" and such. This is surely a good idea. I conceived my free space along the lines of a Talk Radio show (I seem to be big on metaphors!). Here is the description I gave to the Talk Radio space on the discussion board:
Think of this space as our analogy to a "Talk Radio" show, you know, those programs in which a provocative and sometimes outrageous host invites people to call in and vigorously speak their minds on controversial current issues (politics, the national or international scene, sex, drugs, drinking, music, Lehigh, parents, relationships, pet peeves, personal gripes, etc., etc). Each of you will eventually be assigned to "host" a "hot" topic of your choosing not directly related to class content in order to foster vibrant and dynamic class community. The idea is that we all contribute. Join in!
The general goal was to enhance community by giving the students an opportunity to interact on non-academic issues that they were free to choose and to do so in their "real" voices not their sometimes "put on" formal academic voices. I kicked off Talk Radio with a post of my own just to break the ice, and then I assigned a "host" for each class. We met three times per week for fourteen weeks, which meant that some of the students hosted twice. My idea was that there would be a new topic floating for each class, so that when the students came online to do their "business" posts, they would see a new "fun" general topic on Talk Radio and be encouraged to engage if the topic struck their fancy. There was no requirement to post other than to host when assigned, and there was no specific grade attached to Talk Radio. Participation was gratuitous and voluntary.
There were thirty-seven Talk Radio topics ("shows"), and a total of 354 posts altogether -- an average of about fourteen posts per student. Students were posting on Talk Radio about one of every three classes.
The runaway winner among topics was "Stranded" -- what five albums would you take if exiled to a desert island. Other biggies were Lehigh as a top-30 university, plagiarism, censuring the president, what's under-rated and what's over-rated, and would you cheat (on your spouse or partner). Most topics got 3-8 responses. One topic -- something about James Bond's underwear -- struck out completely!
I made a pitch in class for participation on Talk Radio during the first class and gave nudge reminders maybe twice during the semester. My pitch went something like this. I make the several-hour train trip on Amtrak between Philadelphia and Washington pretty regularly on my professional activities. I am struck by the conversations I overhear among pairs and small groups of business people. They usually start on their "business" -- perhaps replaying or critiquing a business meeting they just had. But sooner or later their conversation moves off business, and I have been struck that part of being part of the "team" is not just knowing your "business" but interacting on a personal level for the rest of the time they are together. I asked students to think about that, asked them to think about what they would talk about when business is done, asked them what they would bring to the group as a person, asked them to think about "keeping the conversation going" in this kind of situation as well. And said that Talk Radio was a complement to our business boards, a place to practice that other kind of conversation, a place to practice fostering community by engaging others through dimensions other than work.
The response to Talk Radio was quite positive (click here to see questions 7-12 in survey 8). So much so that I think a closer look at the types of topics and responses that elicited the most sustained and interesting conversations would be valuable.
There are fears associated with the freedom that students have in "open" discussion boards. But there was no "flaming" or "wilding" here on Talk Radio. Students were not required to clear their topics with me, and none did. I did not have to exercise any control or management of Talk Radio beyond assigning hosts and occasionally reminding students to participate. One student did not host on his assigned time and even ducked my reminder. But that was the only glitch.
For my purposes, the more practice the students had in both starting and sustaining conversations, the better. And, thus, Talk Radio, though seemingly marginal, was sneakily integral to my pedagogy.