Online Learning Spaces – (Re)Imagining Discussions

2 Oct

3 Research Resources:
(Re)Imagining Discussion in Online Learning Spaces

How might we evaluate, measure and grade, online discussion forums?

Teachers commonly opt for participation measures such as a counting the number of times and ways people participate, or the weighting of the quality of response content, or build a rubric to guide their review as a holistic balance of the two.  In “Looking for Evidence of Learning: Assessment and Methods for Online Discourse,” Vanessa Paz Dennen acknowledges the whats and some new hows of these teacher-centered measures, but more helpfully proposes reflective statements as an alternative to center students in the process of assessment as each learner surveys the development of their own learning through review of and reflection on participation in discussion forums. In addition to providing an annotated summary of Dennen’s analysis, the document shared here includes a sample prompt UMinnesota teachers developed for as an assignment for module 4 in a 5-module asynchronous course.

“For students to be critical thinkers, they must first be critical learners.”

Encountering this statement early in Stephen Chew’s “Helping Students Get the Most Out of Studying” had me nodding my head, highlighting, and annotating the text all at once. The annotation is a handwritten scrawl: “Critical learners while reading texts is central to becoming critical thinkers in discussions. Active reading assignments that set out questions students can bring to the readings become both orienting tasks and examples of metacogntive strategies that experienced learners to their work.”  The article we feature here, Using the Four-Questions Technique to Enhance Critical thinking in Online Discussions, draws on an established set of four metacognitively-oriented questions (Martha Alexander, et al, 410):

  1. Identify one important concept, research finding, theory, or idea in psychology that you learned while completing this activity. (analyzing)
  2. Why do you believe that this concept, research finding, theory, or idea in psychology is important” (reflecting)
  3. Apply what you have learned from this activity to some aspect of your life. (relating)
  4. What question(s) has the activity raised for you? What are you still wondering about? (questioning).

In this research, the focus was on whether using the four-questions technique as a reflective assignment between case study discussion forums would enhance students’ critical thinking. The finding, in short, was that students who completed the four questions in between the online discussion of case studies “demonstrated higher critical thinking scores” than did students in the control section.  As with the Dennen reflective statement example above, students responded to the reflective questions after participating in other online discussion activities, and completed these responses with time left in the term to apply learning, discussion, participation insights to next forums. Making these questions part of the open forum discussions also works to ease students into application- and scenario-based discussion activities.

Online learning spaces require a “new architecture of engagement.”

To support this assertion, Shannon Riggs and Kathryn Linder’s IDEA Paper showcase 3 examples of learning-centered activities teachers might incorporate as part of “Re-Imagining LMS Discussion [Forums] as Interactive Spaces.” Each activity counters the too common instructor-centered default that puts an instructor’s question at the center of what Riggs and Linder call “the ‘line up and answer’ model.” Their narrative sets out specific descriptions for using discussion forums in 3 ways: (1) as Gallery and Reflection Spaces building from creation of memes, (2) as Work Space breakout rooms for small groups planning for leading an activity or completing a larger assignment, and (3) as Presentation Spaces that teachers might opt to organize in adapting an in-person presentation-based assignment to the online space by making use of video-based platforms such as  VoiceThread or Flipgrid, both platforms that let students create “live” presentations that peers and teachers can view and respond to asynchronously.

2 Teacher Examples:
Preparing Participants for Online Discussions

Solving the “empty head” avatar problem

One small change I’ve made as an online instructor is to require that all participants actively build a Profile within the platform(s) that constitute our shared learning space.  This small bit of housekeeping means that images rather than empty heads show up in discussion forums, and that students who click on Participants or People links in Moodle or Canvas sites will be able to learn a bit about peers in the course. Simply adding a picture is an often overlooked way of creating a “presence” in an online space. As someone who manages 5 different email accounts with different platforms attached to them, I’ve found that having a particular profile “look” for each account helps me to not only keep track of what account I’m accessing, but also allows me to portray – and keep track of – who I am as I interact with others in a given space. For users who are new to a platform, or experienced in a platform but haven’t ventured into setting up a profile, a set of simple instructions, such as the one’s attached here as a Moodle example, can become part of a before-the-class-begins, “start here” activity.

No, really, you can’t attend just once a week

Online courses that link teaching, learning, assignments, and assessments to work that happens within online discussion forums require regular, sustained participation in patterns that we need to overtly introduce to our students.  We can do this by developing a cadence for a typical module or unit in the course, and then sharing this recommended or required module flow and participation pace setting with students in verbal and/or visual ways. Setting out a weekly cadence, or general pattern for/sequence of activities within the course guides students in learning “how to” prepare for and participate in your course. The cadence can be especially important for online courses requiring students to interact within modules, to move through an online course as a synchronous cohort rather than primarily individual, didactic learners, and/or for classes that incorporate out-of-class components, such as service learning, field or internship components with time-sensitive requirements.

Cadence as a Narrative: As a one-credit, graduate-level course, each week of “Teaching for Learning” is organized around the 4 hour per week time commitment advocated as the minimum worktime required for a passing grade.  (Since a “B” is a passing grade at grad level, and a “C” for undergrads, the undergrad 3 hours per week is elevated to 4 hours.) A typical cadence for this course will require allocation of that 3-4 hours each week to a mix of (a) reviewing course materials, (b) creating initial posts, and (c) building discussion through responses and replies. You’ll see that the Moodle site lists dates as a guide for focusing on and moving among each of the individual discussion forums. Here’s a glance at those timing deadlines: Scene 4 runs from 11-15 Sept.  Scene 5 from 15-18 Sept.  Scene 6 from 19-21 Sept.  Scene 7 from 22-24 Sept.

Cadence as a List:  You might present this information to students as simple text, for example:

  • Weekend          Complete recommended readings
  • Monday           First response to class discussion due by 11:59pm
  • Tuesday           Active learning activity due by 12 noon
  • Wednesday      Second response to class discussion due by 11:59pm
  • Thursday          Synchronous class meeting at 7:00pm
  • Friday              Major assignments due by 11:59pm

Cadence as an Image: Each of these was created for courses taught by UMinnesota Writing Studies faculty –  Ann Hill Duin and Lee Thomas to serve as an introduction to the weekly flow of the course, and as a quick glance checklist students could consult throughout the course.

1 Online Activity:
Building “Thick” Discussion Threads

For me the workshop highlight of the 2017 Minnesota eLearning Summit was participating in the “Framing Online Discussions: Getting Quality Posts and Giving Effective Feedback” session led by Marilea Bramer and Monica Janzen, two UMinnesota alums now teaching in philosophy departments within the state college and university system.  In reviewing the assignment documents that Drs. Bramer and Janzen shared during that session, you’ll discover that starting out with 5 initial posts is at the heart of their strategy for sparking ongoing discussion. In moderate-sized online classes, all discussion builds on the postings of the first five students who compose entries linking texts, analysis, and questions together in short compositions.

As next waves of students arrive at the discussion forum, they engage the discussion-starter posts, extending the development of ideas by speaking to points and questions raised, by pointing to other aspects of shared texts to nuance, shift, support analysis, and often raise next questions or highlight gaps in discussion. 

The assignment sheets clearly address what students are to include in posts and replies. In addition, each teacher offers a grading rubric, and Dr. Janzen – who names the work of these forums as Learning Activities – shared the plan for “Pop LA’s,” the assessment strategy she has devised for evaluating a selection of student responses at various points in the semester. In this way, Janzen balances reading each forum’s posts overall with responding in detail to only a few students in each forum. As she reported during the workshop, the “pop” element has worked to keep students engaged throughout a forum and across a class-worth of forums.


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