Online Discussion Pedagogy

So if you’ve ever been in an online course – or even a face-to-face course with an online component – you have probably come across some variation of the Online Discussion Board. Modeled on the threaded bulletin boards that once defined internet communication, they are often imagined to replace the kinds of spontaneous conversation that emerge in face-to-face classroom teaching. The most common approach to these “discussions” is to require students to post a thoughtful post of a certain length responding to some sort of weekly prompt, and to read the posts of their peers.

I hate them.

cartoon gif="Thoughtful Discussion on the Internet"

Thoughtful Discussion on the Internet

I do not hate them because such posts are pedagogically useless – they aren’t. But they aren’t the equivalent of an in-class discussion, they’re the equivalent of being handed a worksheet in class with and being asked to write a short answer. There’s value there, particularly in the context of an online class, but its a different value. The problem is when teachers are seduced by the misnomer “discussion” and think that requiring students to read and respond to each others’ replies teaches them something.

The reason I hate them is because I actually think that students CAN get something out of online discussions, but only if teachers stop thinking that the genre accomplishes the same goals as face to face conversation or even open-ended online discussion boards. And that’s not possible if you’re using the space as an easy place to post short answers worksheets.

In case its not as obvious to you as it is to me, here are a few of the differences between the typical online course discussion board and the models it is supposedly built on:

  • Written replies in asynchronous forums, unlike real-time face to face conversations (or online chat), are not spontaneous or easily refined through quick back and forth discussion.
  • If a classroom teacher standing at the front of the room asked the class to respond to a question or idea, and went student by student so everyone could hear all the answers, that would definitely not constitute a discussion.
  • Face to face discussions with students often allow for students to signal their confusion or lack of clarity with nonverbal cues that allow the teacher to redirect in situ.
  • Most non-school online discussion boards have more lurkers (people reading but not participating) than posters, and responders are highly selective about who merits a reply.
  • In some types of non-school online discussion boards (e.g. more anonymous boards with changing groups of commenters), the majority of replies are not discussions of content but ad hominem attacks and critiques of style.
  • In some types of non-school online discussions (e.g. the threaded responses to posts in Livejournal), interlocutors have long-standing relationships that they have been slowly developing over long periods of time, and replies are as much about building and maintaining those relationships as responding to the content.

It follows that many of the things those communicative genres accomplish do not translate into the style of online discussion common to most courses.

But there are ways to run an online class discussion that might actually be a little closer to deserving the label. These maximize what the online discussion board speech genre actually DOES offer, namely:

  • an opportunity for a student to get a survey of their classmates’ ideas on a given issue
  • a space for thoughtfully crafted short replies

I think the key difference that this highlights is that online class discussions are valuable for having students take ownership of the reading by creating well-grounded critical questions. The responses from their peers are still “short answers” for the ones writing them, but when they are actually engaging with their peers’ ideas, there is value for the askers that wouldn’t be otherwise available. In other words, students get value from having other students engage with questions they have, not answers they have.

My approach in an upper level online class I am currently teaching is to have students sign up for a day to lead a discussion on a reading they have all been assigned. Then that student provides their peers with a short summary of what they think the major take-aways of the reading are, and provides a number of critical questions on the reading that the other students then reply to. The Discussion Leaders are given clear guidelines on how to create questions that inspire conversation related to the day’s topical goals, the larger course goals, and the lines of thought that will be useful for other assignments (e.g. papers). In this class I have seen students develop and articulate theoretical questions and lines of inquiry that I have not seen in other assignment formats. And I have seen students who formulated questions that betrayed a lack of reading comprehension get valuable correction from a number of students that addressed the issue more thoroughly than I, as a teacher, could have done in any single response.

While this particular discussion format won’t work for all levels or types of online class, I think that any online class discussion should keep in mind the particularities and differences of the formats – what is does do and what it doesn’t do – when they are designing their course activities.

Grant-Writing Diary: an old school productivity app

There are a million apps out there to help keep you motivated and on track. To-do list managers like Wunderlist, Any.do and Trello to visualize what you need to do, and note-takers like Evernote and Google Keep so you can actually do it in an easy and organized way. And I like that kind of junk, but when I’m actually struggling, organizing myself with electronics really doesn’t help. Maybe I’m the weirdo, but those tools often make me feel more isolated or like I’m wearing blinders and that just doesn’t help me work.photo of Sam Grace's Grant Writing Journal

What does help, at least 85% of the time, is keeping a grant-writing diary. I started this back in comps. Every day, I’d start by writing the date (not just the date-date, but also the grant-date*), then write a little about how I was feeling (e.g. tired, annoyed, ridiculously animated), then eventually my goals for the day. Then, as the day continued, I would check in with my journal. Tell it what time it was, how well I’d been working, how the goals were shaping up (or not), how much longer I planned on working. Basically, a bunch of crap that is wayyyy too boring for an actual diary.

And throughout the day, whenever my inspiration flagged, I’d keep looking over at my day’s entry and know that I wasn’t working alone. It’s like the main conceit in Inkheart, that written things come to life in the writing, taking on identity and backstory. That self I put into the journal was there with me, feeling my pain. Added bonus: every time I look at that blank page filled with my ideas and goals, I feel productive.

So if you find that the apps aren’t doing it for you, maybe it’s time to take it back to a bulkier technology. Any other recs for getting from “to do” to “done”?


* in my dorky head, this is like the Stardate in the Captain’s Log. I write “Grantdate: Day 8 (NSF)” and occasionally I’ll add “T-3 days” or whatever it is until my most significant deadline.

Scrivener: a grad student review

NSF Word Cloud

Look! I made this from my NSF DDIG application!

I just submitted an application to the NSF DDIG*. It’s a big grant and a big deal and getting it in makes me a very happy camper. I had already done a lot of writing for it in Word, which is where I had done all my grant writing previously. But I was feeling a definite need for a Fresh Start, and so I downloaded a trial version of Scrivener** so I could stare at a new kind of blank page.

I had heard that Scrivener is a pretty impressive writing management system from novelists and other academics. They were correct.

The first awesome thing was that I imported all the grant writing I had already done into folders in the Grant Collection I started. That meant that whenever I wanted to check or copy some previous writing I could zip quickly between a preloaded list, instead of sifting through the eight million heavy, slow Word windows I had been dealing with before. It  reminded me of the light touch and organization of Journler, except with a much more fluid import. It worked so well that I added folders for reference and dumped in a number of grant guidelines from various online sources. Not only were they super easy to navigate, they were also super easy to search from within the application I was writing. Major bonus.

Screenshot of my Grant collection in ScrivenerThe second awesome thing – which Scrivener markets first – is that they have existing templates you can use. These templates are nice in terms of organizing your thoughts and writing and breaking the work ahead of you into a bare bones outline that you can then mess around with so it best suits you. In fact, I found these sub-documents and folders a MUCH more useful way to outline and organize than the more typical outlining within a document. Unfortunately, if you DO want to outline within a doc, Scrivener’s bullet formatting is only mediocre. But if I am really itching for that kind of structure, I prefer to use Opal (which I can later import into Scrivener if I feel like it).

The third awesome thing is that I can highlight and/or compile my different sub-documents in different ways, which I found particularly useful in checking maximum lengths for different sub-sections of my application.

I am not yet writing my dissertation, of course, but I have no doubt that the recommendations I’ve gotten from peers for its utility are not overstated.

The biggest disadvantages I have run into thus far are formatting related. This is true for reference notation (though someone more dedicated than I may have found good work arounds for this), for text-based outlining within a document, and – worst of all – for making tables. The commenting and footnoting features are acceptable (to me) but nothing to write home about.

Overall, I would recommend this to every grad student ever. At a reasonable $45 (or less if you’ve got a coupon from NaNoWriMo like me), it’s a solid investment. There may be a little bit of a learning curve for people intimidated by technology, but I think those people might end up being its biggest fans in the end.

* That’s the National Science Foundation’s Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, for those of you not in the loop.
** They give you 30 non-consecutive days of trial with the full program, which I highly recommend taking advantage of.

Grant Tip #14: Take notes on your awesomeness

Most Interesting Grant Writer in the WorldToday’s post is brought to you by my frankly tepid Intellectual Merit section in my current NSF application.

As it turns out, intellectual merit is pretty much my thing. Interest in how the theoretical implications of my work is going to Revolutionize Anthropology* is my main motivation for this project and I AM excited about it. But being excited about the project and writing like I’m excited about the project (particularly in the emotionally sterile style of grant writing) are two different things. But there’s help! In her excellent feedback on my application, my adviser left the comment,

This section should try to capture the enthusiasm expressed by your committee members at your comprehensive examination. Did you jot any notes in your defense re: our comments on the contributions made by your dissertation?

And the answer is, not really. I tried to make sure I wrote down all the areas that needed improvement, but while I certainly enjoyed the praise I received, I didn’t keep it for posterity. And now I really wish I had. Because if I had good notes about what I did right? They would be pretty much directly ripped off for these sections trying to demonstrate my worthiness for thousands of dollars worth of support.

So! If you have yet to hear from your committee on your work, be prepared!


* okay, okay, maybe just age and citizenship

Lessons at the End of #AcWriMo

AcWriMo

AcWriMo

Being a good early millenial with a healthy lurker status in Livejournal and fanfic communities, I have known about NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – for a couple of years now. The basic idea is to write 50K words of a new novel in a month. This year, as I wallowed in my two-time failure to write the NSF for Cultural Anthropology in time for its submission due date, I decided to get myself writing by putting the grant aside and working on a fun project and signed up. And it pretty much worked! I mean, I didn’t come anywhere close to the 1,667 words a day I was supposed to write, and I eventually stopped, but I DID manage to get myself out of my mopey “I’m a terrible writer” funk, at which point I started working on writing my grants again.

It turns out, I’m not the only one jumping on the NaNoWriMo bandwagon for academic purposes – PhD2Published.com announced #AcWriMo to be more or less run via Twitter throughout November*. Instead of a predetermined word length, you post your goals and your progress with the hashtag on Twitter. They suggest plenty of adjustments to fit it to academic writing projects, but as I look back, I think there is really one big difference they don’t talk about. It might even be the underlying push behind the whole thing.

Keep writing. Its basically the mantra of NaNoWriMo and its probably the biggest piece of it picked up by #AcWriMo. I agree with The Thesis Whisperer’s analysis of the pros (time management!) and cons (exacerbating the academic culture of “just push harder”) of participating, but I think that still doesn’t quite touch on a bigger underlying issue: sometimes you don’t know enough to start writing.

As I mentioned above, I didn’t finish my NSF grant application on time for two deadlines running. It wasn’t because I’m terrible at time management and it wasn’t an issue of perfectionism. I just didn’t yet know enough about my fieldsite to write a decent draft. But instead of acknowledging I wasn’t ready and devoting my limited time to another project, I kept slamming my head against that poor shriveled piece of hope thinking if I just kept pushing it would resolve itself and constantly reminding myself to Just Keep Writing so I could make those deadlines.

So yes, it’s good to have structure, a community, clear goals and timelines (all elements that remain in #AcWriMo). But unlike a creative project (in which, to be sure, time away and research also have their place), to be a good academic and grant writer I also need to keep learning when something just isn’t ready to write.


* As it turns out, November is a terrible month to make Academic Writing Month if you’re an anthropologist, because this month is the AAAs, and for a significant chunk of us, that means at least a week of it is going to be devoted to schmoozing. This year, though, I’m down in Quito doing some preliminary fieldwork and didn’t make it to #AAA2014 this year, so I had plenty of time to dedicate to the cause this month.

Collection of Aphorisms for Grant Writing

Academic Coach Taylor: get your ass out of bed and write me a 350 word abstract

Academic Coach Taylor Has Some Advice for You

“Write drunk and revise sober” – Peter de Vries

“Easy reading is damn hard writing” – Maya Angelou

“It is a pity that doing one’s best does not always answer.” ― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

“The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” – Steve Furtick

“Basically, every piece of scholarly work is a hero’s journey. You are the hero. The topic is the field of battle. The dragon is ignorance/misinformation/poor scholarship. And your enemies? The scholars who have misled the populace with their false dogmas. You must save the day. You must uphold the standard of truth. It falls on your trembling shoulders to right the wrongs of the false scholars and rescue the populace from the dragon of ignorance.” – Karen Kelsy, The Professor is In

“Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.” – Cary Grant

Thank you gifts for my committee

Even though I disappeared after a somewhat desperate sounding post, I did, in fact, pass comps and now I want to thank my committee for all their hard work. But what to do?

academics_anon gives some interesting ideas (letter of reference for a junior faculty member, cookies, a CD mix), and I think a friend of mine hit just the right note with his thank you notes and special pens from the Art Store. But what I really want to give my committee is T-shirts.

It would be a win-win, you see, because the proceeds from the Culturally Awkward T-shirt Store go to my dept’s grad student organization (or they will if there’s ever enough money to send it), and I designed the t-shirts, so it’s almost like it’s personal. Of course, I’d need some money first …

Any advice? Have you ever given anything to a committee member?