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Rules of Engagement; or, How to Build Better Online Discussion

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All participation is not equal. Digital media prompt us for comments, but in an academic setting we should harness this cultural habit to teach the difference between expressing opinion and authentic engagement. Professors often feel unfulfilled by poorly designed peer review exercises with their students. They complain: “The students don’t offer anything helpful. They just write things like ‘I like this part,’ or ‘this doesn’t make any sense,’ or ‘good paper!’” In peer review and in online interaction, we should teach and model for students the best methods of intellectual engagement.

In an Intro to Psychology course, you might build an online discussion prompt that asks students to compare or contrast the differences between two competing theories. Pedagogically, the purpose of the discussion is to 1) make students responsible for demonstrating their learning and 2) to practice the skill of summary or analysis. However, without any preparation students will probably only type their response, hit submit, and consider the assignment “complete.” It will have lost a crucial dynamic component — engagement with the ideas of others.

Let’s take a step back to lively class discussion that happens in a brick-and-mortar class. Participants in a discussion are socially required to attend to the ideas of their peers. If someone blurts something out that was expressed just a moment ago, she reveals that she has not been listening and, thus, is weakening the conversation. There’s a sense of failed responsibility. In the online environment, we should encourage the same sense of communal responsibility by giving our class instructions that lead to engagement. Consider these:

  • Divide students into staged groups that rotate with different assignments. Make one group the “first responders,” the second group the “arguers,” and the third group the “consensus builders,” to insure that students engage with their peers.
  • Teach and model “social citation.” Rather than include “I saw that one of you explained how condensation affects a steam engine,” try this: “Check out Beth’s explanation of the effects of condensation on the steam engine for a good model.” On some assignments, require that students cite posts from their peers that they support or take issue with.
  • Seed a discussion by requiring some students to summarize exclusively. Obviously this responsibility will have to rotate as well, but it’s a good way to assist readers in quickly understanding the differences between positions in a discussion.

In an article for Educause (2010), Linda Deneen interviews professor and mentor-teacher Helen Mongan-Rallis and her student-teacher Kyle Keegan, focusing on their experience in fully online and hybrid classrooms. Helen’s comments are telling: “If [students] are engaged, it’s more fun and more meaningful. I am a big believer in social construction of knowledge. If we work in silos, so much is lost. If we bounce ideas off each other, it can go from strength to strength.” Later she acknowledges that live-classroom and online discussions sometimes draw out different participants. Helen says:

Sometimes I see that students who excel at face-to-face get affirmation from other students, and then they begin to do better online. Conversely, students who are quiet in class begin to talk more after they have success online.

The difference between the comments on the Casey Anthony verdict page on YouTube and the NYT’s “School Book” discussion is instructive. People talk over each other, both online and in real life when their responses are from the gut and they don’t have common interest in learning from each other. Our job in teaching the most fruitful forms of engagement hinges on our ability to state clear goals for discussion, encourage productive contributions, and design assignments that prevent inattentive idea-dumping.

For more on this strand, check out:
“Trading Classroom Authority for Online Community”, also by Pete Rorabaugh
“Classroom Community and Student Engagement in Online Classes,” by Suzanne Young and Mary Alice Bruce
“We Are All Made of Web Sites”, by Sean Michael Morris

And, then, experiment with:
CreateDebate.com, an interesting site for showcasing and analyzing online discussions.

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