As Instructional Designers we like to think we are experts in all elements of the inner workings of the courses we help build. While that can be the case, especially when it comes to technology and the ins and outs of learning management systems, there are times when faculty members who teach the courses know more about a specific aspect of a course than we do. Discussion boards serve as a good example of this scenario. While IDs may understand the pedagogy behind asking students to post their own post, respond to peers, etc., faculty members are the ones in the course teaching the students and seeing how well these practices actually work. They are the ones who tweak the course as it runs, guide the discussion when needed, or adjust a topic that they can tell isn’t working.
We at eVersity are currently working on a faculty development website with the goal of sharing resources with all of the faculty members we work with. A key element to this website is faculty sharing the things they’ve learned by teaching courses. Dr. Sunni Davis, the faculty member who teaches our English Composition I course, has had great success with discussions in her online courses and recently wrote a post sharing some tips that she believes ensure that success. See an excerpt below:
- Don’t start with a homework question. Instead, ask an open-ended question and ask for opinions. For example, you might mention disease or crime statistics, or take a question from a reading. Ask for opinions – then get in there and prod for support for those opinions. Drawing the rest into the conversation with questions and challenges for deeper analysis is the key. Instructors need to participate in the beginning. It sounds like a lot of work, but studies show that while you may answer about 63% of posts in the beginning, as the semester progresses, the rate of instructor contact slows to only about 25% of posts, and most of that will be to answer questions or keep the material on track. The students should do the rest by then.
- If you don’t get responses, try humor. A favorite professor was frustrated at the lack of response and sent out a post saying, “Where are you? Do I have cooties? I am feeling unloved!” It got the students started – half didn’t know what cooties were, and the other half wanted him to know that they cared. That started the conversation, which took on a normal, in-class tone and then progressed to the topic.
- Don’t worry about correcting grammar or punctuation. Yes, this grates on the nerves of a teacher, but students having a spontaneous conversation are focused on ideas. They do tend to police themselves. They don’t want to look stupid in front of their classmates. It always amazes me when students actually improve their writing simply because it is visible to peers. Even peer reviews of papers don’t have the same results, if only because that is academic writing and not as personal as the posts on a discussion board.
- Let them get off topic if they want. You can gently draw them back into the topic, but even in a face-to-face classroom, the topic tends to digress at times. I keep a “coffee shop” in most online classes so that if they want to chat, they may. I make it a policy to stay out of that board, but I will shut it down if anyone complains. (I have never had to do that, by the way, and I have taught five to six online classes every semester for nearly two decades.) It is a spot for them to feel safe and support each other. Online can be a lonely place. Support increases success.
Dr. Davis’ tips come from her firsthand experience with online course discussion and provide an important perspective that we as IDs cannot offer. These could be very beneficial to a faculty member terrified at the thought of their first online course discussion failing. None of this is to say we can’t provide helpful input to the faculty we work with even though we don’t teach courses. Obviously we have a great deal of training in course design and why different course elements are important. However, sometimes as IDs we assume we know the best answer to a situation when instead we might suggest that the faculty member consult their peers. Often their peers have already dealt with a similar scenario and have knowledge to offer. Especially when working with faculty who are new to online teaching, IDs should keep in mind suggestions from their peers may go over better and be more helpful than suggestions from us.