Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Ending the Tyranny of Online Discussion

Something that's occurred to me during online teaching stints is that not everyone prefers to engage in developing knowledge by talking or discussing issues. This is why there are so many who never raise their hand in class. Are these people not learning? Well, maybe some of them aren't, but I suspect that many of them are. They're just processing information and building their knowledge in a different way.

I know there's all that stuff about the social construction of knowledge--Lev Vygotsky and all that. But does one really need to be a talker in order to learn? Is it possible that some talkers, and some discussion, actually create barriers to learning? I think so. And one of my great frustrations about teaching online is that, while I know online discussions are vital to building community and creating connections between and among students and facilitator, some people just won't get anything out of having to post to a discussion--these are people who feel oppressed (no, I don't think that's too strong a word) by online discussion and who we risk losing if we insist on forcing people to "talk" so much in online courses.

Unless... Maybe we can create discussion guidelines and rubrics that are more sensitive to different ways of processing information. I don't think I'm talking about Multiple Intelligences or Learning Styles here. I'm talking about different ways that people prefer to work with or process information and ideas. This processing is but one path to learning.

So what do I propose? A few years back, I experimented with an alternate model for discussions. Instead of having one rubric for discussion participation, I had four. I tried to recognize that people would have different approaches, and different strengths, in the discussion boards. This experimental model is by no means fully developed, but I described it to some faculty I'm teaching about online facilitation in a discussion board post the other night. I thought I'd share it here.

Please let me know, via the comments link below, what you think. If you decide you're going to give this, or some modified form of this, a try in your own teaching please drop me a note about how it goes. Let's find a way to end the tyranny of online discussion!

Subject: An Experimental Participation Model
Message no. 204 [Reply of: no. 201]
Author: Jim Woodell
Date: Monday, November 15, 2004 8:59pm

As an online instructor, I have also struggled with the
notion that not all students want to participate in the
same way. However, I've also found that students need
to be present in the online course and I've found the
discussions an invaluable assessment tool (so much
so that I've lightened up on other assignments and
made participation a huge part of the grade).

But, I developed a model once that I hoped would
addressthe issue that not everyone wants to
participate by "talking." Unfortunately, much of my
documentation of this model disappeared when I
lost a hard drive, but it went something like this:

At the core of the model was the idea that there
would be four different types of participation, and
students should select one of the types based on how
they felt they would be most likely to engage with the
content. Each type of participation had a rubric to
provide students with characteristics of that type, and
also an example or two.

The first type of participation was for the "talkers"--
people who liked to engage in conversation and who
learned a lot through this kind of interaction. This type
of participation looked very much like what we've done
in this course--exchanges of messages, back-and-
forth and tying ideas together.

The second type of participation was for "thinkers"--
people who were more reflective and who liked to look
at a lot of different ideas and consider their own
perspective on those ideas. This kind of participation
required students to go out and seek new ideas to
introduce to the discussion. The ideas could be from
web sites, articles, etc. They could even choose to
highlight an idea that had been presented in an assigned
reading or in the lecture notes, but that wasn't seeing the
light of day in the discussion. Thinkers were not required
discuss the ideas--only to post the ideas and to say how
it changed their thinking.

The third type of participation was for "workers"--people
who were most engaged when they were trying to apply
an idea or concept to their own experience. Again, these
folks didn't have to get involved in the discussion, but
they did have to post something to the discussion board.
What they were asked to post was and example of how
one of the concepts we were talking about had played
out in their own experience--how it applied to them.

Finally, the fourth type of participation was for "lookers"
--people who liked to watch the trends and patterns of
what others were talking about (or thinking, or working...)
and to point out the trends and patterns. These folks were
required to post analyses of the discussion or the course
content, using tables or charts or simple outlines.

That's the idea in brief. Unfortunately, I've not had a
chance to test this but for a brief period of time in one
of my courses. One thing I remember discovering was
that, surprisingly to me, everyone ended up trying out all
the different kinds of participation. Though some
claimed to be solidly in one camp, they were often
inspired to try the other participation modes.


At 11:19 PM, Anonymous Carolyn said...

Hi Jim,

I wandered into this post almost a year later. I really like the idea. Do you have any update? Have you used this model since? How did you make out?


At 8:11 AM, Anonymous Kirsten Peterson said...

Ditto to Carolyn's comment -- I'm also reading this a year later but am dealing with the issue right now and have been for years! I like your idea and may give it, or some modification of it, a shot in my 10-week course that prepares people to develop their own online courses.

Like Carolyn, I'd love an update if you have any additional information on whether this approach has been working, etc.

Perhaps you or others have thoughts on my current issue, which seems not to be over how or what participants post to a required discussion, but the fact that they must post anything at all. This issue is strongest in the course mentioned above, where over 10 weeks participants both learn how to develop an online course (during which time they do readings, activities, and engage in discussions each week) and simultaneously develop content for their own course (as part of the weekly activities/assignments in the online course). The challenge for me is that folks often relate in the final survey that while they find the readings and activities helpful towards building their own courses, once they get started developing content they want to spend "all" of their time doing that and feel posting anything to the discussion is time that could be better spent working on their own courses. If you look at the content of the discussions, though, there is evidence of a great deal of learning -- without the learning, the participants would not be developing the same type of courses.

Any thoughts on whether we need discussions at all in this type of course, or if it might be better to just have an ongoing "design forum" where participants can post questions, comments, and answers about issues they come across while developing their content?

On a final note, for more serious conversation and presentations on issues like this, folks are invited to attend EdTech Leaders Online's annual Online Learning Institute on Wednesday, March 22nd, 2006 in Orlando, FL. For more information, visit or contact me (Kirsten Peterson


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