Under the impetus and aegis of the Visible Knowledge Project, my plan in "American Literature: The Essentials" (English 189) at Lehigh University in the fall 2003 semester was:
- to begin each of the 7 units with a new discussion board intervention based in a series of documents I would devise
- to require a different posting pattern in each unit (moving step-by-step from one post to multiple interchanges)
- to devote substantial class time to "meta-analysis" of student posts at each step
- and to collect information at the end of each unit via a survey and class discussion.
This document is a comprehensive report on that semester-long scholarship of teaching and learning project.
The Visible Knowledge Project, consisting of more than 70 faculty on 21 campuses nationwide, aims to improve the quality of college and university teaching by focusing on both student learning and faculty development in technology-enhanced environments.
In short, my train of thought runs like this: discussion is essential to critical thinking, critical thinking is essential to liberal education, the world needs a greater sense of community; and discussion boards have an enormous potential to enhance critical thinking and the sense of community; but, though I was in the habit of using discussion boards extensively, I was not tapping their potential intensively and needed to explore them much more thoroughly.
Here are several of the questions I had in mind as I began this project:
- Can the discussion board help students to feel confident as a source of knowledge and to trust others as sources of knowledge?
- Is there a relationship between establishing a sense of community on the discussion board and individual learning?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- How generate more genuine "volleying" activity (rather than one-post or one-post/one response behavior)? Does volleying lubricate better, deeper learning?
- 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 students to participate -- through a series of surveys and class discussions -- in substantial meta-analysis of their posts, the posts of others, and posts in general in order to raise consciousness about the art of discussion board writing and thereby to improve discussion board discourse.