An online discussion forum should be an effective way of engaging students in careful and considered reflection, yet often they represent time-consuming and frustrating experiences for faculty. Getting students to share thoughts and ideas, balancing contributions and knowing when to stimulate, moderate or step-back can be challenging. I’ve long found the advice to faculty, much of it still rooted in Computer Mediated Conferencing (CMC) models of the early mid 1990s-mid 2000s, unresponsive to the context of learning and the changing nature, and expectations, of learners.
It is remarkable how quickly Gilly Salmon’s Five-Step-Model (Salmon, 2000) became for the majority what Stephen D. Brookfield might describe as a paradigmatic assumption (Brookfield, 1995). The need for familiarity with the tool or context, a first-step, is itself now profoundly complex. Learners have hugely differing understandings of the function, and etiquette, ‘within‘ a given online communication tool. One of Brookfield’s lovely example of ‘hunting assumptions’ is the illustration of a common-sense assumption that to circulate around the classroom having assigned group tasks shows engagement, interest and commitment, whilst he suggests it may well be interpreted as a lack of trust and distorts learner responses to the task in hand. How quickly have we adopted Salmon’s notion of responsiveness, encouraging faculty to respond to each student posting, as common-sense, our paradigmatic assumption. Salmon herself is not to blame for this, the context of her original model had a very different digital landscape to underpin it, that notion of personal presence less well articulated, learners experiences of commenting, rating, sharing, reviewing in a myriad of different online contexts is something ‘new’.
So this week, while I watch colleagues around the globe initiate MOOCs and discuss global OER standards, I set myself a more modest task. I wanted to explore what we thought worked well in online threaded text-discussion and why there appeared to see an enduring negativity, from students and staff, about the dreaded ‘discussion board’.
Screenshot from asynchronous staff workshop in VoiceThread
I set up a one week asynchronous online continuing professional development (CPD) workshop for faculty and learning support staff discussion effective thread text-based discussions online (we have Blackboard 7). The workshop was to run during the working week, from Monday 9am to Friday 5pm, with a ‘new’ topic added each day and an encouragement for colleagues to ‘dip-in-and-out’. What was different from our usual institutional practice was we did it in Voicethread (www.voicethread.com).
A VoiceThread is a collaborative, multimedia slide-shot that holds images, documents, and videos and allows people to navigate slides and leave comments in four different ways. Users can use text, voice using their computer microphone, upload a pre-recorded audio file or capture a video on their webcam. In the US they can also use the telephone.
Users can also draw on the slides while commenting, allowing them to annotate a diagram, image or schematic; they can also zoom-in to the image for more detail. Users can also create multiple identities, allowing them for instance to take on a group leadership role whilst remaining a member of the group, or adopt more playful and creative personalities. VoiceThreads can be embedded in the existing VLE or another web page and can also be archived. It is primarily a web browser based tool, now also available on iOS mobile devices and available in an accessible screen reader version or very low bandwidth version, and users have no software to install.
The tool itself has strengths and weaknesses and, whilst I declare it is a tool I’ve used and evaluated previously (Burden & Atkinson, 2010), I am not seeking to promote it. Rather what I wanted to do was to take faculty away from their existing assumptions about discussion threads and have the conversation in a very different context. As we explored each day a different theme it proved remarkable how some contributions followed the ‘discussion board’ convention, whilst others playfully sought to exploit the new technological opportunities the environment afforded them. One colleague made a series of short, positive and responsive contributions in response to others, what might be seen as rather appropriate netiquette in online discussions. However, because the comments were all appended to the end of a timeline, those responses (unless clearer ‘tagged’ as such) appeared as ‘hanging interjections’ without context. None of the 79 contributions during the week, except for my own, used anything but text which I felt was disappointing.
In coming weeks I will analyse the pattern and nature of the responses in more detail, and critique my own model of facilitation in this context, but what has emerged immediately is how quickly some ‘assumptions’ have been set and are subsequently modelled even when users find themselves in a different communication context. This is perhaps one of our biggest challenges as educational technologists and developers, or instructional designers, is to recognise our quickly solidifying paradigmatic assumptions and move beyond them. The digi-ecology is in constant flux and we need to consistently challenge how we do what we do.
Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. John Wiley & Sons.
Burden, K., & Atkinson, S. (2010). De-Coupling Groups in Space and Time: Evaluating New Forms of Social Dialogue for Learning. In L. Shedletsky & J. E. Aitken (Eds.), Cases on Online Discussion and Interaction (pp. 141–158). Hershey, Pennsylvania: IGI Global.
Salmon, G. (2000). E-moderating : the key to online teaching and learning. London: Kogan Page.