Death of the Discussion Forum: a #digped Chat

The semester begins. Servers everywhere fire up. And students across the globe introduce themselves in discussion forums. In Canvas, in D2L, in Blackboard, in Moodle. Teachers from every field, students of every subject — from mathematics to Russian literature, from astrophysics to marine biology — spend the first days or week of an online class saying hello. “What are you studying? Where are you from? Do you have pets / hobbies / recreational activities? Include a picture!” For five years as an online English instructor, the first week of class meant the monotonous drone of my keyboard clicking away as I typed furiously responses to each of my 120+ students. One-hundred and twenty hellos. One-hundred and twenty ways to welcome learners to the semester.

But does the discussion forum really do the work it’s supposed to, that we hope it does? Jesse Stommel and I observe:

“Instead of providing fertile ground for brilliant and lively conversation, discussion forums are allowed to go to seed. They become over-cultivated factory farms, in which nothing unexpected or original is permitted to flourish. Students post because they have to, not because they enjoy doing so. And teachers respond (if they respond at all) because they too have become complacent to the bizarre rules that govern the forum.”

Instead of becoming the thriving, intersectional space that a physical classroom can become (under good stewardship), the discussion forum too often limps along through the term, a repository of half-thought essays pried from the overtired minds of students who, if they have a community of learners, find solidarity away from the screen rather than within it.

For the past ten days, Jesse has been teaching (with Kris Shaffer and me as co-teachers) the Digital Pedagogy Lab course Teaching with Twitter. In that course, the participants use both the Canvas discussion forum and Twitter for dialogue, debate, and conversation, while exploring the differences between the two. As we wrote in the course:

“The difference between a Twitter discussion and a forum discussion is one of both spontaneity and of collision. Ideas inside a discussion forum can be lengthy (sometimes are actually required to be), and usually echo a prompt, sticking precisely to the prescribed parameters for a post. On Twitter, ideas branch out from one another, stacking not in the neat lines of a thread, but shifting and moving out from the center rhizomatically.

“In fact, the representation of Twitter as a line of tweets, one on top of each other, is a misrepresentation. A tweet, once tweeted, becomes a node for a web of conversation.”

This Friday, October 2 at Noon Eastern time, Digital Pedagogy Lab and Hybrid Pedagogy will host a Twitter chat using the hashtag #digped which will explore the advantages and disadvantages of online discussion, both inside the LMS, on Twitter, and via other alternatives. We’ll be looking at questions like:

  • How do we engage — as teachers and learners — in LMS discussion forums? Are you able to engage students the way you would like? Are you able to form community there?
  • What works about discussion forums? What doesn’t work? What about discussion forums is vacant, and what about them is rich?
  • Have you taught with Twitter? What are the obstacles you face when engaging learners on Twitter? What are the platform’s advantages?
  • How do we form community, or support a community of learners, online? Can the discussion forum allow for spontaneity and authenticity? Can Twitter? What other platforms can we turn to for building community in online and hybrid courses?
  • What would you change about your own online interactions? What would you change about discussion forums, or about Twitter?

If you are interested in this conversation, join us Friday, October 2 at Noon Eastern. For those unable to join the conversation this week, the #digped chat happens on the first Friday of every month at Noon Eastern. If you have suggestions for future topics, feel free to add them to the comments on this entry or tweet them to @Jessifer, @slamteacher, or @hybridped.

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