What counts as participating online?

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Miles Heller

Participation is one of those things that we all agree is important for learning. Because of that, many teachers have presented students with a participation grade, or told them that their participation factors into their grade. But how? It has often been one of those amorphous grades that instructors use to flex a student grade up or down, depending on how they think the student should have done. Some instructors have more concrete criteria, some less. Faculty Focus posted an interesting article about participation policies that got me thinking.

When we start talking about an open situation, or even an online one that might not be open, how would you go about grading participation? In many cases, it’s far easier to see how students have participated, at least in concrete ways. It’s online and if it is text, you can capture it (Storify, FlipBoard, IFTTT, RSS feeds). When it comes to audio, we are often recording it (as is the case for EC&I 831‘s Blackboard Collaborate sessions). It is much easier to go back and see who spoke up, who said what, who joined in.

The issue, then, is often not about tracking who participates. That isn’t always true, of course. Some students are going to consider private means such as emails, direct messages, one-on-one Skype sessions, ways that we may not see. But leaving those aside, it is still important to talk about what participation means.

In many of the online courses I work with, forum posts are counted for marks. Some are treated as writing samples, some as reading responses, but many are on the level of participation. That is, the important factor is to share something, comment on the posts of others. This seems pretty concrete because you can see if they did or did not post, can see if they did or did not comment. Obvious, right?

When it comes to online participation, it is worth being aware of some facts about general online participation.

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by Ross Mayfield

If this is the type of participation students are used to, then we should consider that they may not really know what types of content they should be writing. What constitutes a post? What is appropriate for a comment? If we want them to do something differently, then we need to be specific about how they need to go about participating. It is easy to say that you need to ask questions in class or answer them. When online, what does that look like? What expectations do we have?

And what happens to the idea of being “present” in an online environment? Generally, just showing up and attending counts on some level for participation but when you are online, that can become a lot harder to see. Works great in a recorded chat but what about people who read blogs? OR follow Twitter? Or read the posts in a Google+ community?

I’m curious to see how others work through all this concept. To me reading can be participating, especially if things are structured in an open way where there are no strict requirements for participation. Responding to things that really produce a reaction rather than just responding to respond is important to me. I rarely feel the need to respond just to respond. At the same time, I know the value in feeling like someone is actually reading an engaging with what you write. It can be a hard balance to strike. I’m still figuring out exactly where I fall on the concept.

4 thoughts on “What counts as participating online?”

  1. Hi Kirsten,

    I definitely agree with a couple of points you made. Firstly, as always with assessment we have to be clear about our expectations for participation. Which then means we have to figure out what those expectations are for participation in blogging, twitter, or whatever connected avenues you are taking with your students.

    Yes, determining these specifics can lead to some superficial responses by students as it is now required of them. But I’d rather have some superficial responses, activity, than none. Maybe it would be the push they need to get them into it, and hopefully, with time, more authentic interactions would occur.

    I definitely hear you on the reading participant. I am an absorber. I read and think about things and take time to digest. But, if I’m not forced to do something with that reading, thinking and interpreting, then it’s likely to be pushed aside with new information I take in. So, I think it’s important to require students periodically to bring some of that learning to a more concrete place. The demonstration of learning can look a million different ways, but its an important step. I’m finding that with that with our class, I’m taking so much in through twitter and our Google Plus Community, that I need to stop, breathe and reflect on what I’ve taken in and what it means for myself and my practice.

    Great post!

    1. You make a really good point about being forced to do something with what you read. That definitely does help in retaining information and being able to use it in future. I have a lot of bits and pieces from things I’ve read in my mind, but not always clearly enough to be useful. Drives me nuts when I know I read something but at the time it wasn’t vital and I no longer remember the full context or where I even read it!

      My issue with superficial responses comes, in part, from reading feedback we’ve gotten from students replying to online forums who are left feeling like they got nothing out of reading other students’ responses because what they needed to do was so superficial that there was no real impetus for engagement with one another. Then it ends up feeling like make-work which I myself find irritating. I know I will need to work harder when I teach to ensure that if I have an assignment, students understand WHY and what the purpose is as I know I could have been clearer about that previously.

  2. Shauna and Kirsten. You raise some good points. As we have found out from students in higher ed many only post to forums so they get participation marks. They aren’t necessarily interested in the topic or what the person has to say. Sometimes, these posts are simply “I agree”. This is why guidelines are important. For example, posts should not simply say “I agree” but instead “I agree/don’t agree because…”. Posts should be about 300 words long. They should “include some critical thought”, be backed up by “academic research”. In the past I have had some instructors that have simply counted the number of posts made by a student in order to get the marks. It didn’t really matter what was in those posts. I think most have moved beyond this. I am a big believer in giving students a choice. For example, an instructor might pose 10 discussion questions throughout the course. Rather than telling students they have to answer all 10, they could choose any 5 that they have an interest in. Many instructors may get students to respond to other student posts as well. Many students do this because they have to while and they don’t care what others have to say. They just want to pass the class. A lot of this is based on the subject matter of the course, the student’s personality, how comfortable students feel with the instructor, whether the course is undergraduate or graduate. I could go on an on but I will stop now.

    1. Yeah, just participating sometimes can be less meaningful and productive than solely absorbing. And while we try to work with instructors to get meaningful interaction, I still see student feedback that basically says they got nothing out of participating in the forum. So I guess a deeper point I didn’t quite see was the idea of meaningful participation vs participation just to participate. Does it matter if it’s meaningful or not? Or do you just push for the requirement for the requirement’s sake and hope that it becomes meaningful?

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