Warnock’s points about how effective asynchronous posting can be, as a tool for enabling student conversations, match up very closely with my experiences of using iLearn forums for classes I’ve taught here at SFSU. For privacy reasons I can’t quote those fourms, but I will try to describe one such thread in an effort to illustrate what Warnock was talking about.
For one of the discussion threads, my students were reading about genetic screening for various traits (things like sports aptitude and propensity for disease) and had just finished watching the movie Gattaca. So in this thread, I wanted them to continue and expand upon the discussion we’d been having in class, and I hoped that the forum would allow some of the students who didn’t normally talk much in class to participate more fully.
Here’s the prompt that I used for the forum:
For this forum I’d like us to practice our on-line discussion skills.
Please post to this forum no later than 6PM in order to give other students time to respond.
When posting a response, please indicate your position in the subject heading of your post, i.e. “Benefits Outweigh Hazards” or “Hazards Outweigh Benefits.”
If there are already more than five posts in the forum, try to post your work in response to another student’s posting, either as an agreement or as a respectful counter-point to a previously stated position.
In the TimesOnline article, “Genetic mapping of babies by 2019 will transform preventive medicine,” Dr. Flatley claims that most people will have their genomes mapped because “[t]he apparent benefits would soon eclipse the hazards.”
Do you believe that the benefits of genome mapping will eclipse the hazards? Explain your answer and support it with evidence from the other articles.
Please post by 6PM Thursday night.
Many of the parameters that Warnock mentioned as necessary to facilitating online discussions are built into the prompt. Although I hadn’t thought to create an overt distinction between primary and secondary (or response) posts, the timing of the assignment is designed to give the students time to respond, and my request that students post in response to each other, after five or more primary posts are in place, effectively does what Warnock intends with his primary/secondary classification. I point this out not so much to pat myself on the back, but to demonstrate that the parameters Warnock is laying out are pedagogically grounded. Also, they’re parameters you’re likely to approximate on your own as you think about how to structure your activities. On the other hand, I think making the primary/secondary distinction an overt one is a good tweak, and one I’ll use on the future, so Warnock can fill in gaps that might exist in your pedagogy. Other parameters that match up with Warnock’s are the request for references to the readings we’ve done and the caution to keep disagreements respectful.
Alright, so what happened in the thread in question? The first post in this thread was from a student who would talk some of the time in class but in a pretty hit and run fashion, quick comment without much follow up. In the thread though, the student posted a 271 word response that referenced multiple readings and demonstrated detailed thought of sufficient quality as to form the basis of a thesis for a paper. This then was the anchor point for the thread, and from there students began responding and building off the original post. Of the multiple threads going in the forum, this one became the biggest. There were multiple nested responses within this thread and even the responses that essentially were agreements often pointed out how a previous post by a student had illuminated something the current poster hadn’t considered. Looking back at this thread, I can see how Warnock’s word count requirement for response posts would have helped some of my students expand on ideas that they only lobbed into the thread and let lie where they landed.
One particularly interesting post in the thread came from a student who said that the original poster’s point about the repercussions of genome mapping represented a new realization, even though the student had seen Gattaca numerous times in high school classes. What we see there is a concrete example of students having a conversation that allows them to scaffold each other through a zone of proximal development into a better understanding of the texts and the concepts we were trying to cover in class. And all of that process was facilitated by the asynchronous format of the forum board.
So Warnock’s points about what can be achieved with student conversations in asynchronous communications matches up strongly with my experiences, and I’m looking forward to applying many of his ideas to my use of forums in the future.