Preparing for the next semester is always when I analyze what is and isn’t working this semester. The discussions, which I left open for students to lead and get extra credit for, aren’t working. In previous semesters, I’ve tried guided discussion, group-led discussion, and open discussion. I’ve tried weekly forums, fortnightly forums, and one big forum with topics. I haven’t been satisfied with the results of any of them.
Turns out I’m not alone. According to a recent article (1), others are frustrated also. Most of the participants in the study “believed students prefer not to interact with other students in online courses, and this is reason enough not to do so.” They mention open chat rooms no one used, and forums with little participation. They even noted that the “Help I Have a Question!” forums went unused, and that their primary mode of connection with students was, comfortably, email.
And these are teachers to whom overcoming the distance is important, and who want to create a caring environment for students. They are experienced online professors, who have been “influenced by past failures”: “teachers admitted forgoing some attempts to develop significant learner-learner interaction despite believing it was a necessary component of the web experience”.
In addition, the study points out that our students (underprepared community college) likely require tons of guidance:
In situations where students will likely exhibit low levels of autonomy, either because of unfamiliarity with technology or the complexity of the course materials, the faculty member may need to provide early substantial support and dialogue, while students projected to have greater autonomy may benefit more from socially constructed knowledge and less formal structure from the instructor.
So perhaps there are two factors here – student antipathy to discussion, and their need for firm guidance and structure, working against the open method for forums. I have noticed that my own “Help” forums, which used to get a lot of posts, don’t anymore – students vastly prefer emailing me, and if I really want to be helpful I answer them (rather than saying “post in the forum”).
I’m considering limiting discussion to just a few – specifically on controversial or extra-deep topics. And perhaps encouraging it around the primary sources they post each week. And eliminating all other forums.
Yes, it seems we are going backward, but that shouldn’t be surprising. My honors students asked this week about the format for the final project, and I was trying to link them to some tools when I discovered that most of the free tools (Voicethread, Glogster) aren’t free anymore. They asked if I wanted PowerPoint. No, I don’t, but if they have it that’s what they’ll want to use.
Considering that more students this semester than ever before are struggling with basics (following instructions, comprehending reading, learning from text, submitting their work each week), I do not believe I can afford to “push” them technologically. I will offer cool options, but only as options.
And I should likely spend my time firming up structures and pathways. Let’s not talk about it.
1) John A. Huss, Orly SelaOranim and Shannon Eastep, A Case Study of Online Instructors and Their Quest for Greater Interactivity in Their Courses: Overcoming the Distance in Distance Education, Australian Journal of Teacher Education, Volume 40, Issue 4, Article 5, 2015,