Traditional in-class discussions meet online annoyance  

Traditionally, students would gather in a large hall or small classroom to discuss History, Science, or the Arts. Topics ranged from Christopher Columbus' exploitation of indigenous people, the possibility of time travel through space, or even the fractured spine of the great Sistine Chapel painter Michelangelo.

Sometimes more controversial topics such as the practice of Abortion, or maybe the moral justification for the Death Penalty crossed the forum with lively discussions. The in-class atmosphere was alive and booming! By 2001, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) surveyed the college landscape and to their surprise found 56% of the colleges in this study also offered online degrees; essentially removing the conversation, and learning atmosphere, to the couch away from everyone. Lively college discussions were about to take on a whole new face. In the early stages of online learning, Discussion Boards were optional and very foreign territory to both the instructor and the student. But by 2016 online discussions board forums are now the cornerstone of all online degrees which account for over half the time students spends in their online class. The student's attitude towards discussion boards and replies are mixed but usually lean towards disdain and annoyance. As an online instructor, the question I most often encounter is 'how many Discussion Boards do I need to post, and do I have to do replies?" As a result, discussion board replies are usually quick and unresponsive, "yes I agree", or "That's an interesting point", or the usual 'cut and paste' reply, "you make a very good point, and I agree, clearly a sensitive matter, and let's hope it gets better" In return, instructors retaliate with mandatory word counts in hopes of igniting a discussion but that's often met with fluff and unproductive comments. If discussion boards are the cornerstone of online learning, how do we remove the negative stigma and return to lively discussions? Our hope rests in three area, fostering constructive comments, respectfully agree to disagree, and critical responses that engage the conversation further.

Constructive Comments

After surveying a handful of students, I've noted the biggest challenge to discussion board replies was where to start and what to say. Comments tend to fall into one of two categories, agree or disagree.*Note: Although the following are real reply comments the names have been changed to protect the student's privacy.Topic: Mass Saturation in the media."I really enjoyed reading your post, Jane, it was extremely informative. Your organization skills were very helpful. I think making the table was a really nice touch and helped me absorb the information easier. It's really interesting to find out just how many learning disabilities there are out there. I would never have thought." Laura Doe, Spring 2016At first glance, this appears to be a decent reply. She comments on her organizational skills and finds her post easy to read. But, let's imagine having coffee with Jane, who is very passionate about how the internet is saturated with too much information and its ability to diminish critical thinking skills. Laura's reply would then be somewhat odd. In other words, Laura's apparent 'take away' from the conversation was Jane has nice organization skills but doesn't seem to care about her argument. Laura failed to comment on anything concerning the passionate pleas for critical thinking, nor does she offer her own opinion on the matter. It would be similar to me saying I hear a comet will hit the Earth in ten years and we will all die, and Laurie saying, I love how you worded that!

What to say?To Agree or Not To Agree, that is the question

Have you ever been in a long argument that never seemed to end? Finally, in pure desperation, you throw up your hands in the air and say, "Fine... let's agree to disagree?!" I've often wondered where that saying came from and after a little digging it I've discovered it's from an 18th-century eulogy between two adversities .... "There are many doctrines of a less essential nature ... In these we may think and let think; we may 'agree to disagree.' But, meantime, let us hold fast the essentials.." He was basically saying that his old foe was gone and would be missed, if not for anything else his scandalous conversational skills. Fair and funny point. There is no denying that students will disagree but, how do you go about it without sounding petty or spiteful?I tell my students to picture themselves in a face to face conversation, and the students' initial post is the opening of a lively conversation. If that person was sitting right beside you, what would you say? Would you agree or disagree, and how would you go about doing it? Would you violently disagree and flip the table? Or, would you simply nod in agreement?Rather you disagree or not, students should respond with respect, purpose, and direction. Comments should always inspire a healthy debate with passion and resolution. Plus, one of the advantages of online conversations is the students have time to prepare a poised and intelligent response! Give readers a sense of deep admiration for their insight and passion, even if you disagree, you can at least appreciate the value in someone else's opinion. Your intent should always promote further discussions. Above all aim for a goal that clearly states your opinion with clarity and crisp refrainment.Professor Martha Kay offers an example of very insightful replies:Dear Nyela - I am glad to hear your review of the closed caption system for improving reading comprehension. I was wondering how this particular technique actually worked. I am especially inspired by your findings related to how it improves your spelling. I am a visual learner, too, but sometimes have problems with clearly remembering how to spell words. Once I get them down on paper I can usually see the errors. By practicing with the closed caption, I can see how this would be very helpful! Thanks for the great feedback!~ElijahProfessor Martha Kay suggests students open with a simple gesture of respect by using the original post authors name, then continue with an earnest response that sparks further conversation. She offers many tips and examples at her website, Education Coffeehouse

How Instructors Grade

It's been my experience that wondering how the instructor will grade a Discussion Board is a big anxiety for most students. Grading is very subjective and changes from teacher to teacher. By the time the student's gets the hang of one teacher's grading style, they switch teachers and the anxiety begins all over. Grading practices should evaluate and assess knowledge learned, not justification for standardized teaching methods. In the past, instructors typically assigned a single letter grade to discussion posts and replies. Those practices fell out favor due to their crude and uninformative nature. Instead, rubrics should gear towards a detailed and personal account of the student's comprehension of the material. Instructors should always resist the urge to use the same grading rubrics for each assignment and instead, opt for rubrics that pertain specifically to the assignment.Alfie Kohn comments that many instructors oppose standardized testing and with that logic they would be against standardized grading as well, however, that is not always the case,"This attempt to deny the subjectivity of human judgment is objectionable in its own right. But it's also harmful in a very practical sense. In an important article published in 1999, Linda Mabry, now at Washington State University, pointed out that rubrics "are designed to function as scoring guidelines, but they also serve as arbiters of quality and agents of control" over what is taught and valued. Because "agreement among scorers is more easily achieved with regard to such matters as spelling and organization," these are the characteristics that will likely find favor in a rubricized classroom. Mabry cites research showing that "compliance with the rubric tended to yield higher scores but produced 'vacuous' writing." To this point, my objections assume only that teachers rely on rubrics to standardize the way they think about student assignments. ...But all bets are off if students are given the rubrics and asked to navigate by them." ~Alfie KohnAbove all, instructors are looking to see if students further the conversation by using their critical thinking skills. Instructors typically look for the telltale signs of critical thinking:Here are some very helpful hits to becoming a well-cultivated critical thinker from the Critical Thinking Company:

  • Raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely
  • Gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively
  • Comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards
  • Think open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as needs are, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences
  • Communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems

All in all, students should first express themselves subjectively then determine if they've fulfilled the requirements of the rubrics. Student's should ask themselves, did they properly assess the material, then have you evaluated your responses for objectively, and do you understand how other possible answers could affect your response?

Bottom line, your replies should foster positive communications, grow ideas, and evolve the material. Part of the educational process is constructing critical ideas during your problem-solving exercises.Above all, find a way that works best for you to express your beliefs while still maintaining an open and critical mind.
Sources:Sheehy, Kelsey. "Online Course Enrollment Climbs for 10th Straight Year." US News. U.S.News & World Report, 8 Jan. 2013. Web. 23 June 2016.
Bass, Marsha B. "Education Coffeehouse: For Online Students: How to Write Discussion Board Posts (& Classmate Replies) That Get Results." Education Coffeehouse: For Online Students: How to Write Discussion Board Posts (& Classmate Replies) That Get Results. N.p., 1999. Web. 23 June 2016.
Baiyun Chen, Aimee DeNoyelles, Kelvin Thompson, Amy Sugar and Jessica Vargas (2014). Discussion Rubrics. In K. Thompson and B. Chen (Eds.), Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository. Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida Center for Distributed Learning. Retrieved June 23, 2016 from https://topr.online.ucf.edu/index.php?
"Our Concept and Definition of Critical Thinking." Our Concept and Definition of Critical Thinking. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 June 2016.

Kelly Perez, Adjunct Professor