Yes, I have been that student in an online class. I looked at the syllabus, entered the due dates for the assessments, exams, and discussion board. I placed the majority of my time in the assessments and exams because I saw the value there. I had control of that data. However, the discussion boards were another matter completely. I didn’t necessarily see the value of them. I would read the prompts, feel uninspired, complete my initial entry, and post my two replies. I rarely went above and beyond that. Honestly, though, that isn’t me. In classes, I enjoy contributing to discussion. I enjoy reading the materials before class and engaging with my peers, getting to the deeper level of the text. Yes, I am one of those students in a face-to-face class. I have noticed this trend while teaching online, too. I have had some students be very interactive in f2f setting, and then, it seems like they hibernate in my online classes. What is happening? Why do students, like myself, who love to engage with peers lose that contact in an online format? My goal has been to identify the cause of this phenomenon and come up with a solution. Granted, I haven’t arrived at the perfect answer and some students still do not participate actively; however, over the last few semesters of online teaching, I am seeing more developed, reflective entries along with more thoughtful replies.
The first part I decided to tackle was helping students see the value of online discussions. When it comes down to talking, most people feel comfortable writing/talking about what they know, AND what do they know better than themselves? Nothing. My thought, then, was to get students to start talking about themselves in the first entry when they introduce themselves to the class. However, they have to introduce themselves in a deeper manner than what the census bureau collects every ten year. Yes, they still include that data; however, they also now need to include information about their most and least successful learning experience, and then they have to reflect on the differences between these experiences (very OnCourse-ish, I know (and love it)). WOW!!! The success of this first entry reflect not one, not two, not three, but FOUR well developed paragraph for an INITIAL journal entry. Then, the replies are just as engaged as the initial posts. Comments regarding I love/hate math just like you, or I love/hate English just like you, and then it ranges to the discussion about motivation, responsibility, value, and time management. These students seem to be engaging and taking an interest in each other. They begin to see the value the discussion. It is not uninspiring.
The interest and discussion is encouraging. However, it is a really tough act to follow. After all, I cannot have them just talk about themselves all semester; I have to get them to engage with the content of the course just like I do in a Face-to-Face format. When I am in front of the classroom, I play videos, hand out news articles, and assign students to specific topics. It gets them interactive and applies the textual concepts to their lives. The answer, then, is that I have to apply the same teaching method to the discussion boards. I need to make it “live.” Over the last few semesters, I have been integrating commercials, videos, and news articles into the discussion board prompts. I, then, include what textual concepts they should be covering in their initial post. They don’t have to cover/discuss each one, but it should be developed into 3-4 well-developed paragraphs (7-12 sentences). Then, they have to reply to someone who presents a new understanding to topic. The result??? AMAZING! They are engaged and talking. There are more than the two expected replies. It is inspiring.
What is the benefit of this engagement? Value and Inspiration for both the students and myself. After reading the discussions (Initial posts are due Fridays and replies are due Mondays), I am encouraged that online education is evolving, and I look forward to the future of how we can engage our students even more through creativity. I look at the prompts that have little interaction and know that I need to discard and advance them to today’s standards. In the end, whose fault is it that students don’t engage? Is it the students fault for not putting forth enough effort, or is it my fault for not providing a good writing prompt? I guess, I have to look at when I become engaged in a Discussion Board as a student. If it is an uninspiring writing prompt, my instructor is going to get an uninspiring entry. If it is an inspiring writing prompt, I am going to offer a thoughtful, interactive entry.