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Online learning discussion boards aren’t

Posted on | September 20, 2009 | No Comments

really discussions, that is.

I’m taking an online learning course now, at a good university.  This mode of learning combines two of my favorite things: learning & techy stuff. I’ve been busy putting pdfs on my Kindle2, annotating and highlighting like crazy. I also like discussion boards — a great way of having an asynchronous conversation.

But I’ve been having a hard time with the discussion boards in the two classes I’ve taken so far and it took me a semester and a half to figure out why. Here’s the deal: in the syllabi of the courses I’ve taken so far, they lay down the rules for online discussion: substantive, informative, referenced.

On the face of it, that doesn’t sound bad. Here’s how it works:

Each person in the class has to write a summary of the reading, with proper APA citations. The threads are based on the submission by each student — then students have to read the other submissions and make replies on those threads.

But the result is formal discourse that is mostly dull, dull, dull. No free-wheeling, idea-spinning discussions that I think of as learning conversations. Instead, a series of mini-papers, a formal lock-step march instead of a dance of ideas.

Maybe the professors are trying to duplicate online a graduate seminar type of discussion. But I don’t think that’s the right model to use.  I think there should be:

  • instead of a few paragraphs of mini-paper recapitulating the reading,  smaller bite-sized discussions of each of the ideas in the reading. The threads would be idea-based, instead of participant-based.
  • instead of APA formatted references for every idea mentioned in the post, a link to the online article in the library.  Since we’re all enrolled, we can find the article right away instead of creating our own search.

Then it dawned on me why I don’t like this type of discussion — it’s another instance of what I call “the Procrustean bed” method of teaching.  It’s not so much about the learning but more about making it easier to grade the discussion. Each student wrote an entry, check! Each student included references, check! Each student wrote more than “gee, great post!” check!

I would rather see a far-ranging conversation, free of constraints. At the end of the week, each student can circle back and write a small paragraph summarizing the ideas — substantive, informative, and referenced.


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