Giving Students Time and Space: Asynchronous Conversations

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.

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4 comments on “Giving Students Time and Space: Asynchronous Conversations

  1. Thanks for sharing these illustrative examples of how the asynchronous discussion boards proved productive in your course. It’s exciting to see and think about the benefits of creating a space where students literally construct their own knowledge ( in writing) that comes to represent a source of user-generated “content” for the course. However, I can also see a flipside, where, although students technically have more time to think about and formulate their responses, the longer they take to respond, the higher the likelihood that the conversation (in progress 24/7 on the discussion boards) may have already dealt with the set of issues a particular student had hoped to take up. The challenge I see with the requirement to read the postings of others and make connections between and/or build upon or challenge what others have already said is that—unlike responses written first for a teacher and then shared—there’s the possibility that students may shy away from taking up topics that other students seem to have already exhausted. In a certain sense, I think discussion boards have just as much potential to stifle original thinking as they do to provoke it.
    While I value the social constructivist model, I think it is important for students to be able to think through and analyze their own ideas and responses to course themes first, in a manner that permits them their own sense of private (learning-based) engagement before they are asked to publically join a larger conversation that is, alas, performance-based. I think Warnick makes a lot of assumptions about the types and nature of discussions and small group activities that go on in face-2-face classrooms in his zeal for promoting online writing environments, and I think there is a fundamental difference in approach to the social construction of knowledge. The differences are subtle and can be easily obscured by dereferentialized use of imprecisely defined terms. But I think for some, the social construction of knowledge means collaboratively generating and analyzing new information, whereas for others, the concept of socially constructing knowledge is more firmly rooted in the process of negotiating meaning. It seems that in a small group, I student’s learning might be readily enhanced by contact with the multiple perspectives of his or her peers. But in an online course with 100 students, exposure to so many threads of conversation could quickly become overwhelming. I guess I’m not so much in favor of importing “real world” environments into classrooms.
    Beyond the benefits for commuters and long-distance learners, as well as those for whom discussion boards present a preferable mode of engagement for learning, the tendency I see with the online discussion boards is one that privileges abundance of information (e.g. how many connections are students able to make between multiple sources of information) over more sustained thinking on a single topic that asks students to make connections between course materials and their existing knowledge and experience. And I question the motive for encouraging them to seek to engage with as many external sources of information as possible. Especially for undergraduates, imagine how disempowering it might be to realize that the ideas you thought were unique and interesting—the ideas that motivated you to want to contribute in the first place—are already old hat and have been exhausted by the thinking and conversations of others. If we want our students to discover their own competence, I don’t know that that is best accomplished by putting them in situations where the extent to which they are actually novices becomes painfully clear to them. Where the response formats of online discussion boards seem to border on commentary, I think we should also consider the ways in which these formats might also discourage (as much as encourage) students to join ongoing conversations.

    • You raise some important points, Jessica. Something that stood out for me was when you wrote that students should not search for many external sources of information for fear that they might realize that what they were thinking is not that genuine. I”m sure a teacher can set up an online forum discussion for an online class where students are asked to just brainstorm ideas and write them down, not worrying about sources. I’m not sure if you were trying to argue that there is something about an online class that requires students to search for as many external sources as possible. If I misunderstood your point, then I apologize.

      But I’d like to argue that pretending that students come up of original ideas in these first-year courses when they really didn’t does them a disservice in an institution that rewards innovative ideas. In their majors, they will be asked to make original arguments as well as understand the already existing body of knowledge that is out there. I don’t think sheltering them in these freshmen composition classes does anyone any good. Plus, just searching for many external sources does not necessarily mean that they don’t have original ideas. They will feel that much better once they know that something they came up with is truly original.

  2. …the tendency I see with the online discussion boards is one that privileges abundance of information (e.g. how many connections are students able to make between multiple sources of information) over more sustained thinking on a single topic that asks students to make connections between course materials and their existing knowledge and experience.

    I think you raise some good points about differentiating between students’ learning styles, and certainly some students benefit from having time to reflect on their own thoughts first. Of course nothing about an online forum dictates that students wouldn’t have the opportunity to reflect privately before posting; it’s all a question of how you, the teacher, structure a given activity. I think that becomes particularly relevant to this point:

    …the tendency I see with the online discussion boards is one that privileges abundance of information (e.g. how many connections are students able to make between multiple sources of information) over more sustained thinking on a single topic that asks students to make connections between course materials and their existing knowledge and experience.

    I don’t think there’s anything stopping you from setting criteria around the use of a forum that encourages more sustained thinking to the degree that that mode supports it. But I don’t know that class discussions promote sustained thinking on a subject anymore than a forum does. And I agree with you that a different kind of writing activity would be better suited to that goal. I really only see forums as a component within a range of writing activities.

  3. After reading this blog post and comments, I am even more determined to continue experiementing with online posting to compliment my AP English Language and Composition class. My past attempts have been failures by any measurement, but I now have the name of what sounds like a good resource for guiding me in this work: Warnock’s Teaching Online Writing: How and Why. The point that asynchronous posting provides a discussion activity that favors a different learning style than in class (real time) discussions is a benefit I hadn’t even thought of before, but of course it is true.

    I have experience myself with the problem Jessica describes: thinking about and arriving at a position on a prompt, going to the online environment to make my contribution, and being stymied by the fact that several people have beat me to the same or similar argument. I wonder how a teacher can structure posting directions to mitigate this issue?

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