One thing that I’ve always agonized about in teaching partly online is how to set up and moderate a discussion. I’ve tried all the typical approaches. I’ve tried to let a discussion thread emerge organically without tying it specific numbers of posts, comments, and grades. I’ve done the more typical one original post and two comments per thread. I’ve used rubrics to assess the quality of the posts. In all these approaches, I’m popping in and out of the fora, commenting on as many posts as possible. None of this has every really felt right to me. Not to mention all that lurking and commenting – exhausting. In this course, with about 80 students spread across six discussion groups, clearly this wasn’t reasonable.
So, with the guidance of one of co-instructors of this course, we’ve tried a different approach. We’ve decided to set specific parameters on the numbers of posts required (you guessed it, one original post and two comments per thread) as well as time slots for both the original posts and comments. We also have a simplistic rubric to help ensure that the posts and comments add value to the discussion. All this has been pretty familiar to me. What’s been different, however, is my role in the discussion.
Rather than constantly hovering over the threads, I have instead begun posting summary posts in each thread. I look for key themes, interesting points, interesting questions, etc. and generate a post that pulls in quotations, etc. This has enabled the discussion to develop more organically for the students. I suspect they feel like it’s more a conversation than a Q&A with the instructor. The first rounds of posts, across all six groups, resulted in better conversations than any that I’ve been a part of. The summary posts give me the opportunity to synthesize and challenge different points of view. In fact, while it’s not required or assessed, several students have posted comments and responses on my summary posts. And while this has been time consuming as well (next round I’ll chart my total time spent in developing these summary posts), it certainly has helped me to identify themes in the students’ thinking as well as some possible misconceptions and things that need to be addressed in class. In short, it’s been a good pedagogical approach so far, I think.
In fairness, we’ve only had one round of discussions so far. Still, I think this has been a more manageable process for me and has resulted in better discussions among the students. I’ll post a follow-up after the next round.
How about you? What works best for you in facilitating and assessing online discussions?