Over the summer I corresponded frequently with a colleague at another school who was intrigued by my use of a phpBB discussion forum platform for my online classes. I’ve come to rely on the discussion forums as the primary community builders and hubs for these classes. (I still use blogs and Hypothesis and often Wikipedia as well, but that’s for another post.)
Along the way I thought aloud about my conceptual frameworks for these learning spaces. My frameworks seem in some respects radically different from the frameworks I see in other discussions about online learning. Perhaps they’re not so different as I think, but then again, I’ve been to enough conferences and heard enough talk about uber-LMS next-gen “learning engineered” approaches that I suspect my frameworks are indeed atypical.
At any rate, some thoughts on discussion forums as learning environments:
For me, the biggest question is one of environment and what the cog-psych people call “appraisal“–i.e., the message the environment and affordances send to the user about what sort of thing happens in that environment. That has to do with look and feel, with what’s out there on the Web that resembles the environment, what you can do with the particular affordances the environment provides. In short, what has the environment’s designer (or the platform’s installer, or the course’s instructor) imagined this experience might be like, or should be like?
So in these respects, the choice of what goes where on a platform is less about technical considerations that it is about social, affective, and cognitive considerations. Less like building a house, and more like hosting a great dinner party.
So, do you want your students to be in an environment in which other class discussions can be viewed if they choose–or where they see that these discussions are present, even if they never look at them? For me, that answer would be yes, as the space (in a theatrical sense almost) communicates that Here Fellow Learners Are Building Communities, Working Hard, And Having Fun While Doing So.
I wouldn’t myself put a faculty forum I’ve used for other business in there, because I don’t want the site to be “Dr. C.’s phpBB installation where he takes care of all his business.” Even if the students can’t look at the discussion itself (assuming they’d even want to of course), they see that the forum is there, and for me that subtly communicates that this is not a student learning site but a site that serves my needs first.
These are subtleties in some respects, but they’re all tied to my longstanding dissatisfaction with Blackboard’s transactional design for everything, including their “blogs” and “discussion forums.” I’ve peeked at Canvas, which is now being rolled out at VCU, and while it’s much sleeker and friendlier and web-savvy, it kind of amounts to the same thing.
And getting back to my original point, using something that’s NOT a designed-for-school platform helps the students’ appraisal shift a bit. Think of it as something like the beloved class meetings where you get to go outside. Same lesson, same students, same teacher, but not an environment that says SCHOOL quite so firmly. Another way to think of the forum is as a class-related “third place” or “third space.” (Yes, the distractions can be a challenge, but so are ants at a picnic. The joy is worth the pain.)
At this point, my colleague asked if students would use a “just chatting” space if they had three spaces available on the forum, with another for guided online discussions and a third for questions and answers (student questions and teacher answers, presumably). I responded with the following thoughts.
In my experience, students typically want things in school to be transactional most of the time. That’s not always bad, but it’s mostly bad, because “transactional” rules out the real vulnerability and communal efforts and conspicuous commitment required for authentic learning communities. So if you create two spaces that are pretty much transactional, with one that’s a social space, they’ll likely say “spaces one and two matter for my utilitarian purposes of getting through this class and earning a good grade, and the rest is just fluff, and I’ve got a million other things to do, and I don’t even know these people, so forget it.”
A common teacher remedy would be to require the students to socialize, which is even more disastrous. (The beatings will continue until morale improves.)
My strong recommendation is to combine those three spaces. They’re all valuable, and they’re related. It will be the students’ responsibility to pay attention and to use the forum to find the information they want (a very easy thing to do, with a search box). You can nudge them along the way by making FAQs, making some threads into “stickies” or “announcements,” etc.
I do require that student posts be “interesting, substantive, and relevant.” My experience has been that there’s enough good socializing in the “interesting, substantive, and relevant” posts to make the forum lively. I’ve also made some recent tweaks, such as creating an “introductions” thread as I did for my summer class. Students need not provide any info they’re uncomfortable providing. They don’t have to use photos of themselves–any polite (i.e., NOT “nsfw”) avatar will do. Having that thread was a great way to start the class.
In my class sessions, I also repeat over and over what I consider to be the value of the forum. I regularly mention posts I’ve found particularly interesting and insightful. And very often, my approach to the next class will be shaped and inspired by the threads and enthusiasms I see on the forum.
I hope the above makes some sense even without the context of the original conversation. I’m happy to elaborate on any part of what I’ve written, either in the comments or in another post.
In subsequent posts, I want to reflect on my own Great Online Pivot last March, and what I learned as a result. I also want to explore some of what I did over the summer–including teaching a fully online asynchronous class–to prepare myself for my online teaching this fall. As a look ahead, here’s an example of one thing I learned to do, something I’d always wanted to try: I made course trailers. I’ll share one now.