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.

Note Taker HD in school and the field

I am a software evangelist. I admit it. I get super excited when I find something that works for me and become convinced that the life of almost everyone I know could be improved if they adopted the same thing. For that reason, I expect that this post on software will be only the third of many.
Sam with iPad and dog
Like many of us with the privilege to be in school, I take a lot of notes. For years, I have debated the merits of paper notetaking and computer notetaking with myself. Despite my love of tech solutions, I got a tactual pleasure out of writing by hand and appreciated the superior flexibility and organization of a blank sheet of paper. Sadly, once the semester was over, my notes formed indistinguishable piles where nothing could ever hope to be found again. So, by my second year, I had transitioned to taking all my notes on my computer, first in Journler then in Evernote (because Evernote syncs between devices). Magically, amazingly, I could find all my notes! I could search them! I could use tags to navigate them! It was wonderful!

But I missed handwritten notes.

notes taken in Note Taker HD

notes taken in Note Taker HD

This came to a head when I returned from some scoping work in Ecuador with a pile of notebooks and the boring task of transcribing them somewhere I could search through them (and maybe code them later). Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if I could just take the notes electronically? Typing on a tablet seemed like a good route*, but the fact of its tablet-ness made drawing on the screen a more logical option.

Then the spectacular Tracie Mayfield introduced me to Note Taker HD for iPad. It had the best of my worlds: 1) handwritten notes organized like my brain and 2) PDFs I can sync between devices (via Dropbox or Evernote). It’s not perfect – I wish it automatically synced my handwritten notes as tagged PDFs rather than the intermediary step of Dropbox. And, of course, real paper doesn’t have a battery that needs charging. But its folder organization works well within the program and tagging it again on my computer is, for me, a small price to pay. One of the best unlooked for (in my case) features is the ability to annotate PDFs by drawing on them – something that I would continue to use even if I ultimately decided I like typing my notes better after all.

* And I’m still looking into this, I’ll let you know if I find something awesome

Academic Grant Writing Support

Despite my best intentions to have solid drafts of all my grants at least a month before the deadline, I find myself a week before a deadline with a stinky, gloppy mess of a grant started too late and severely lacking in lovability. A big part of that failure was simply part of learning the process that works best for me in writing academic grants*, but thank goodness there were also a couple of people (my adviser, the friends who shared their successful grants with me, my Grant Writing Buddy, and a couple of peers who selflessly pretend to actually want to read and edit my grotesque early efforts) to keep me from wholesale fail.

In addition to those indispensable and wonderful support people, I have also found a number of online resources helpful for staying on track. One I already mentioned, but bears repeating, is Dr. Karen’s Foolproof Grant Template, by Dr. Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In (http://theprofessorisin.com). Another, too obvious for links, are the guidelines and links provided on each granting agency’s website. The last is the treasure trove of advice on academic grant writing found in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Academic grant writing resources for all!


* A key turning point was when I realized I shouldn’t try to write lit reviews by starting with the narrative and filling in the citations, but rather making a list of all the people I want to cite, categorizing that list, and then writing a synthesis that ties them all together. My adviser tried to explain this to me previously, but I still needed to learn the hard way for some reason …

Worldbuilding Questionnaire meets Research

Grant writing about your research demands that you answer some very big questions with very high stakes. When confronted with them, especially when I’m staring at a blank page, my resolve to Get Things Done turns to jelly and suddenly I realize I’ve let hours pass by doing nothing but checking Twitter and Facebook. The third time that happened this week, I decided I needed a new approach. Something that let me start thinking about my research in productive ways but didn’t have such high stakes. I needed a screen that gave me a new way to look at my work.

This week’s exciting answer came from one of my favorite fantasy authors from my childhood.

Patricia C. Wrede* created a list of Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions over at the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America site that is truly spot on for fantasy writers and almost completely irrelevant to anthropological research. Perfect! Hard to imagine lowering the stakes more, really. So my buddy and I chose a short list of questions for each other (about 15), and set about answering them. It worked best when the questions were unanswerable in their current form, but worked metaphorically to brainstorm new questions about the research.

FOR EXAMPLE: If magic requires study, where do you go to learn about it? How do people fund their training? Is there an apprenticeship system, or are there wizard schools, or is it one-on-one tutoring/mentoring? Is an untrained wizard dangerous, or just an ordinary person?

The approach shook loose some new ways to think about my research and my fieldsite, and now thinking about those other Big Questions is a lot less intimidating. Another win for fantasy and anthropology!

* Author of the Dealing With Dragons series, which remains some of my Favorite Books Ever.

Opal is for Outlining

I am a software evangelist. I admit it. I get super excited when I find something that works for me and become convinced that the life of almost everyone I know could be improved if they adopted the same thing. For that reason, I expect that this post on software will be only the second of many.

Opal is an outlining program for Macs and one of the programs I rely heavily on in grad school. It costs $32, but has a free 30 day trial that is exactly the same as the full version. If you outline, but you get overwhelmed at all the writing you have on the page, this is a really good program.

Opal screenshot

It’s good at a very short list of things. Pretty much just writing and editing outlines. But if that’s part of your writing process (and how could it NOT be if you are a grad student or academic?), this is a huge step up from just writing in a text file or a word document.