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@2006 Ed Gallagher, Professor of English, Lehigh Lab Fellow. Lehigh University.
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The Results

Now that the project is over, here is my commentary on several of the "big" questions I had in mind as I began, and which I listed on my initial Visible Knowledge Project proposal poster. 

Besides the answers to these big questions here, there is a wealth of information about a wide range of things in the summaries and findings and implications sections of each survey.   No consideration of the results of this project would be complete without attention to the detailed information there that is simply not easily summarizable.

And the following document on final reflections is also a storehouse of results of the project.

1)  Can the discussion board help students to feel confident as a source of knowledge and to trust others as sources of knowledge?

Confidence and trust.  Self-confidence and trust in others.  Here's a situation in which I don't have a specific survey question that addresses these points.

But trusting others relates to the formation of community, and there are several places in which students commented favorably on that -- such as question 16 in the final survey where there is evidence of several types of bonding, and, in terms of intellectual matters, such comments as "people really exchanged thoughtful ideas" and "Many people refered to other's posts when discussing materials."  

Self-confidence?  Hmm, I really wish I had remembered to address this specifically.  The main thing that comes to mind is the case of the quiet student who decided to major in English as a direct result of the way that the discussion board enabled her to open up to a more intense engagement with both the subject matter and her fellow students.

2)  Is there a relationship between establishing a sense of community on the discussion board and individual learning?

Question 14 in the final survey is probably the best point of reference here.  Only one student in the class did not feel that a sense of community had a major positive role in his or her learning experience.  Here is a representative yaysayer: "Normally, other students have very little to do with my own learning process.  Most times, the other students in class are only though of as the ones you need to be sure to beat on the next test.  They are the ones that determine the curve, and therefore how well you do in class. This class is the only class I can think of that makes the other students a learning tool for the class.  Listening to and understanding other students comments helped me better understand the books we were working on.  Their insight helped me look at things differently."

3)  What does a good post and/or sequence of posts look like?  Can I model exemplary discussion board participation for students?  Does that modeling lead to change and improvement?

I did a great deal of modeling of both individual posts and sequences during the meta-weeks.  And in the student work sections that are part of each of the eight survey sections in this report, I show many examples of the kind of modeling I was doing.  This modeling was probably the most practically valuable part of the entire project for both me and the students.  I had never done this kind of exercise before.  The students -- 75% of whom had previously worked with discussion boards  -- had never seen anything like this before.  So, yes, not only could I demonstrate models of exemplary participation, the surveys are filled with comments like this one revealing students responding to that modeling by changing the nature of their  posts: "I don't know if I'm a better poster now than at the beginning of the course, but I do think my posts changed throughout the course.  In the beginning I think my posts tended to be more like mini essays.  I thought them through a lot and tried to organize and support my ideas.  Toward the end, I think I tried to write more freely and was definitely more conscious of trying to provide something for people to respond to.  I think my posts at the end were more like a conversation rather than just putting my ideas out there."

4)  Is there a hierarchy of value in different kinds of discussion board posts that makes sense, that I can use as a model, and that I can use as a basis for grading?  Does clear criteria for grading lead to change and improvement?

I'm still a bit uneasy about strict application of the 3-tiered response options in a grading situation as I indicated in the overview of the documents.   I want to think more about this.  And I will need to experiment a bit to get it right.  In this class in which I was working a lot of things out as I went, I did not link grades to specific skills with either the five eyes or the response options.   And though we talked at length in the meta-weeks about good and bad posts via many examples drawn from the class, I did not work in any depth specifically with individual students on their work.  I would want to do that before I grade their performance on their implementation of my system.  I think I am in a better position to take that next step now, for in my commentary on many of the posts in this report, I tried to talk out what I could say to students in a conference situation.

5)  Can I make students conscious of the exact nature of their discussion board activity and conscious of specific strategies and options to do better?  And does such consciousness lead to improvement?

These days when students ask me what kind of writer I want them to be, I answer that I want you to be "a conscious writer."  "Conscious" has become a kind of buzz-word with me, like "community."  I don't want students to just sit down and begin writing.  I want them to think carefully about  the rhetorical situation -- who the audience is, why they are writing, what strategies they need given that purpose for that audience.

Abundant student commentary clearly shows that the course succeeded in raising consciousness to a significant degree and that students felt that they were doing better at the end of the course (see, for instance, the answers to question 5 in the final survey).

So the students felt better about their work.  But was their work better?   Now that's a little tricky.  Frankly, I always wonder whether the students who do well in my classes do so because of my efforts or simply because they came in as good students.   But I did find, as I say in the introduction to the final round of student work, "that as a class these posts were better than any of the previous units." 

6)  How achieve more open-ended writing and thinking?  How encourage students to avoid premature closure? (My mantra is "the art of writing on the discussion board is to keep the conversation going")  Does open-endedness generate deeper thinking?

Many times students "shut down" too early.  I myself realized as early as unit 1 that even my system didn't sufficiently account for the seemingly innate rush to closure that characterizes much student intellectual behavior.  I think the development and eventual incorporation of the writing socially document will help foster the open-endedness so important to my approach.  But does open-endedness generate deeper thinking?  Wow, there's a "big question."  All I can say is that I see evidence that it can do it.  There are some good examples of student work in this respect in the volley1 (survey 7) and volley 2 stages (survey 8).  One tricky thing in this whole discussion board business, of course, is that "it takes two (or more) to tango."  The discussion board is about thinking together, complicating the conditions under which deeper thinking can occur.  A weak partner shortcircuits the process, no matter how commited a student may be.

7)  How generate more genuine "volleying" activity (rather than one-post or one-post/one response behavior)?  Does volleying lubricate better, deeper learning?

Well, the response option guidelines were the key here, and this representative comment to question 2 of the final survey indicates that a very high percentage of the class found those guidelines effective in productively  prolonging the conversation: "I think [the response option document] was more helpful actually than the five eyes document.  this one showed why exactly discussions became uninteresting and died.  if your response is not of a high enough level the whole thing falls apart.  so i think it made people realize that just saying 'good point' was not enough to keep things going."  What I said above in #6 about deeper learning applies here as well.

8)  What happens when you make the discussion board the "performance" rather than the "rehearsal" space (in other words, the main activity instead of writing essays or taking tests).  Will I or they "miss" formal essays?  Feel they learned more or less?

I asked a specific question about this on the final survey, and my conclusion was that "The overwhelming number of students expressed satisfaction in the discussion-only format of the course, though a few felt grade-anxiety."  In fact, the variety of student responses to that question is very, very interesting and worth detailed perusal. 

Similarly, I felt completely satisfied.  The posts provided an enormous amount of information about each student.  I was looking directly "at" their work constantly.  I'd say that they were also getting a significant amount of writing practice as well, albeit of a different kind.  I did not miss essays to gauge their learning.  I would have no problem recommending that a 100% discussion format be part of a student's curricular experience.  I am even moving toward experimenting with one-paragraph writing assignments as a complement to essay writing.  Curiously, we think of advanced student writers as those able to produce longer work (i.e., a dissertation), forgetting the need for the ability to write succinctly and crisply in certain situations.  "Writing short" effectively seems to me as important a skill as "writing long."