Forum Time CAN Work… I hope

Well, I was apparently psychically linked with Alec last week because I did a bit of background on the type of student/student, student/instructor interactions that will be part of my course – discussion forums. During the weekly class of EC&I 834 there was a lot of criticism of discussion forums. I get it. I’ve seen them go poorly many times. I know many students dislike them. Let’s be honest, a lot of students dislike forced questioning or discussions in the classroom too. It is obvious when an instructor is asking questions just to ask rather than inviting an actual discussion. Nobody enjoys those times particularly so why should an online forum be any different?

Amazon Discussion flickr photo by TadDonaghe shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

So for the course I’m developing, Steve Wihak and I will be using discussion forums in Moodle. There are a few reasons for this.

  1. This course is part of the EADM graduate degree and, as such, we want to keep some similarities to the other online courses in the program and this expectation also comes from the administration of the program as well
  2. The course is a three-week intensive which means there is very little time for learning new technology. Students will have to get right into course work so we don’t have much time for them to get set up in an unfamiliar technology or deal with technical glitches. The forums in Moodle might be fairly boring but they are reliable and fairly straightforward to use.
  3. Because of the condensed time frame, we still want to offer a little flexibility. We did discuss giving students the option of joining synchronous discussion groups (and we are still toying with it) but I also want there to be full course discussions in some way. At least with a discussion forum, students have some choice about when in the day they do their class work (as will I).

Time flickr photo by Cea. shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

This doesn’t preclude us from using Google Docs occasionally or offering times we will be available to chat for students who are also available to join zoom and who want to do so.

I think I have a different relationship to forums than a lot of people in our class. I was pretty socially active on the internet since the late 90s. I participated in chat rooms that scrolled by so fast you could barely read them when it was busy but I also spent a lot of time in forums of various types, mostly online role playing forums that were all about writing stories as a character, interacting with other “characters.” I had a lot of fun doing that and spent hours refreshing and scrolling and typing. Text has been my most common mode of communication at various points in my life. I’ve seen all sorts of very active forums on the internet and there is a place for asynchronous communication. There is still a place for it. The archive of responses but also the potential to join in, to participate, to connect. For those who think connection requires visuals and audio, I give you Facebook. I am part of one community with over 4,000 members, a huge proportion of whom are active. And it is amazing. Regularly, someone posts saying that they feel like it’s full of friends. I recognize people by avatar if not by name. There have been singing challenges, people reading pages of Harry Potter, a whole separate emotional support group spawned… And it came from being commentors on and fans of a particular blog. Text has power. Yes, it has limitations, but it has a lot of power too. Anyone else have that sort of experience? Just me?

And technology is letting us bring more and more things together. It’s just nice to have things all in the same place. So students can share images or videos to a forum and not have to go 6 different places for different types of interaction. As much as I love social media and love interactions of various forms, I have times of being overwhelmed by the number of places and things I need to check on and participate in sometimes for this course. Anyone else feeling that way? This is the only real benefit I see to the LMS. At least there is a central point to the class. (Okay, the assignment submission is nice to keep that grouped too, but still.) And that is possible using WordPress but last time I was involved in BuddyPress and bbpress they were still having some major growing pains and required a developer on staff to help fix things and adjust code. I know people were using those plugins to build their own course hubs but you had to be tech savvy and code savvy to do it well. CUNY put out Commons in a Box, built on BuddyPress and bbpress but geared to higher education, and there were daydreams of getting it at U of R but needless to say, that hasn’t happened for a variety of reasons.

So the main interactions in the course are going to be forums. They allow asynchronous communication, they allow editing of responses and avoid the fast scrolling which can happen in active chat rooms. When used in more informal ways they can encourage community. We were asked to read Mastering Online Discussion Board Facilitation but I am really feeling like it is somewhat outdated. It presents very structured options, which are good, but leaves very little space for actual community which is made of all sorts of levels of communication. Schwier makes a good point, that communities aren’t created, especially in virtual learning environments, nor are they a given. (I disagree that “community” is a metaphor, necessarily, but I guess it is a metaphor until it becomes a reality. I think many learning spaces do become communities but this is an older paper of Schwier’s and I bet he would write it differently today.) The invitation is sent out in some way to the learners.

Invitations flickr photo by Kelly Sue shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

So yes, some depends on the invitation. We all know that. If we are hosting a party and send a last minute, crappy invitation that isn’t clear about the intent or the details, few people will come. If we send an invitation that is appealing, that connects with the desires of the invitees, that works for them, then they are much more likely to come. The invitation in this metaphor is both the format provided (forum, Zoom, collaborative software, etc) AND the actual prompt (question, purpose, instructions). If the format doesn’t work but the prompt is appealing, some learners will struggle through because they really want to communicate. If the format works but the prompt is unappealing, the interactions can easily form a community but without the desired intent. Schwier references elements, emphases, and catalysts. The role of the instructor, in this case is this:

What we are attempting to do as educators is promote the development of
virtual learning communities by nurturing the conditions under which they can arise.

There are no guarantees with any type of potential community. The instructor can only control the conditions. Am I doomed for choosing forums?

And the invitees make the party. I think we’ve all been to a party that didn’t work well because of the guests. And to others where the guests made something that we expected to be awkward turn out to be awesome. Different groups have different outcomes. The students decide how much of the invitation to take up. They determine the interactions that will take place. And some groups of students will form instant communities, others won’t. Some will be involved, others won’t. I’ve been in a course where the forums got 170+ posts and replies in two weeks which had previously not been the case. I have seen others with the bare minimum. Even with other forms of community building, like EC&I 834’s blog hub, Twitter hashtag, and Google+ community, each course I’ve taken has been different in the type and size of the community. Logan offered some great thoughts on how he can prepare for this but, in the end, preparation only gets you so far.

KM bloggers community flickr photo by Lilia Efimova shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

So in my case, there will be a grade for participating in the activities. It won’t be about checking off boxes and commenting X number of times, although we do have some minimums since we want to stress that it is important to consider the questions and engage in the activities. (For any teacher who has ever called on particular students or used the Wheel of Terror, you do this in face to face, so it is important to recognize your practices for what they are.) We want to emphasize that quality matters as well. So meeting the minimums with high quality participation is worth as much as more frequent posting with perhaps less substance. Does that seem reasonable?

The prompts are also being carefully planned. The intent is for the prompts to be activities that bring engagement with the material but also leave room for creativity and discussion. There will be no right or wrong questions, and if facts are required, they will be applied. The intent, however, is not to have super formal writing. We want discussion, not exam answers. So our prompts will be a little less formal, as will our posts. And we will have a space for group chatter, questions, randomness.

I’m hoping like Sarah W. that I’m being thorough in prepping for success in community building!

All we can do is test it out. We are going to put our theory to the test, after years of encouraging instructors to build in interaction. Can we get the forums to work with graduate students (I’ve seen it, so I know it’s possible)? We know there will be adjustments for the next offering, and we hope we can make adjustments as we go, but it will depend in great part on our students.

Can we teach what we don’t know?

flickr photo shared by planeta under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

EC&I 832 is very much about thinking through teaching new media and digital citizenship. For my final project I am looking at instructors and what their support needs are. One of my reasons is that it is pretty darn difficult to teach what we don’t know. We refer to instructors developing courses as “subject matter experts” for a reason, after all. Aside from all the issues around the place of teaching in universities, being a teacher (or instructor to differentiate from K-12 which is a whole other debate) means having some knowledge. Admittedly, there is value in learning with students. Actually, it is a fantastic thing to do. It reminds all of us what the process of learning is like, helps model learning for our students, helps build their confidence as they see themselves on the same path as their instructors. It can open up all sorts of interesting was of knowing and paths to learning that we might never use if we remain stuck in the usual patterns.

So how does my final project support that? Well, one aspect of digital citizenship that has been discussed frequently in higher ed for the past 5+ years is a digital portfolio. Recognizing that students do work during their university career and that they will, at some point, be seeking employment or applying for further education, the point is to build something that can showcase what they have learned which can then be used once they leave the institution (although not all options take that aspect into account). Not everyone is on board with this idea yet, but it is coming and some universities have implemented options for this like Mahara or even WordPress installations. It is worth understanding the value of giving students knowledge and control over their work, especially in ways that allow them to take it with them after they are done.

flickr photo shared by IntelFreePress under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

Okay, so far none of this is too far outside the norm, even for instructors who are not big fans of technology themselves. Sure, students in this day and age might want to think about these things.

Wait. Who exactly is helping these students? Who is modelling how do to this? Who is crafting the assignments they might use?


Now we get into it. If we think it is a good idea for our students, then why is it not a good idea for their instructors? It can be all too easy to tell students one thing but do something completely different. Yes, it would be good to showcase your work. Yes, it would be good to have your own space on the web so that future employers can see what you have done, so you can track your own learning, so you can understand how you got where you are. But do I also need to do this? Should I also consider reflecting on my own learning? Could I or should I share work I have done? Do I want to take some ownership of my presence in a digital world? Moreover, to assume that every instructor will only ever be employed by a single institution is, I think, changing. Many choose to relocate if the culture is not a good fit. Others find somewhere that suits their goals better. Some relocate because of a spouse getting a job elsewhere. Some are seeking tenure and working as a sessional until that day. Others have multiple identities that intersect around their teaching and may need to think through how that all works.

flickr photo shared by tsevis under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

For those instructors already out there, experimenting, building their own examples, that is fantastic. They can already model work they are doing. I was a teaching assistant for a professor a number of years ago who encouraged students to check out his blog – Phil Harland. He has since gotten into podcasting. He also links to other sites that he has been involved in, including companion sites to books, online versions, or even virtual tours of archaeological museums. He shares his CV, publications, and even courses including course outlines and additional materials.

Not everyone wants that kind of presence or has an interest in doing podcasts. There is nothing wrong with that. We all have our different times and places on the digital continuum. This is only one example. But if we can see value for our students, perhaps we can find value for ourselves. Perhaps we can connect with our students in learning. We may be able to share pitfalls or concerns or questions about this part of our field when we engage in learning in this place as well as more traditional “locations” for learning and teaching and practicing. How do we assign a student to do work on a site we have never used? And if we see amazing work produced by a student, why couldn’t it influence how or where we ourselves do work?

flickr photo shared by lisaclarke under a Creative Commons ( BY-ND ) license

This is where it all comes together. Teaching, being professionals, learning, it can (and I would argue, should) be tied together. Without taking major leaps into the unknown, we can take steps. We can find ways to be digital that are meaningful to us and to our work. And hopefully to our students and colleagues also.

I’ve already started that, building my site as a portfolio that can also feed work into my job, inform my practice as an instructional designer, but also inform my practice as a teacher.