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Some comments on this topic - based on my experiences

Posted By: Andrew Topper on August 30, 2003
As I've stated before in this forum, I taught two online graduate classes last year (using BlackBoard) and am teaching two more this year. Along the way, I'm conducting an action research project to explore how my role as instructor in these courses can help promote the kinds of learning I am looking for in our program. Towards that end, I am sharing (below) some of my (tentative) observations and views regarding how we, as instructors, can help promote this kind of learning.

I donít believe we can (or should) develop and implement a formula or prescription for stimulating and nurturing the kind of rich, thoughtful discussions of issues and ideas we are striving for online. Instead, I think we can develop and use some guidelines that will (hopefully) lead to the kind of interactions we are hoping for. Instructors should realize that electronic discourse (ediscourse) provides students with opportunities to be exposed to ideas, concepts, and knowledge that can be internalized (learned) and applied elsewhere. But it also provides a mirror through which students can see and learn ways of thinking about issues that might hold promise for promoting the kinds of critical thinking we are also looking for.

The research on f2f discourse provides possible ways of facilitating ediscourse including revoicing, questioning, clarifying, offering alternative explanations or points of view, and playing devilís advocate. These methods, when used judiciously, can help promote the kind of rich and fruitful discussion that we are hoping to generate online. In my work, Iíve experimented with the use of these ďdiscursive movesĒ online and had success generating the kind of rich discourse I think can lead to substantive student learning. One goal of this kind of work is to promote more student-to-student interactions and encourage participation in a balanced and shared discourse.

For instructors, I would argue that patience is a critical factor in promoting this kind of balanced dialogue. Given the authority that instructors have in any classroom setting, intervening and responding to each posting or question from students may reinforce the role of instructor as authority in the discourse, making students feel there is no room for their ideas, and resulting in little (if any) meaningful student-to-student interaction. Iíve found that I need to give students time to respond to postings, to offer advice sparingly, and to resist the urge to intervene often if I want to see the kind of rich, generative ediscourse emerge in my online courses. I realize this may threaten some instructorsí view of their role in the course with a shift towards more student-centered interactions.

While I am not an advocate for dictating quantity of interactions online, I do feel there should be a sufficient number of postings to justify studentsí time and effort in ediscourse. But I tend to focus more on the qualitative features of the ediscourse and spend more time trying to facilitate rich, thoughtful, and generative discussions where many ideas are presented and many students have opportunities to participate in some way. I also have learned that if we are to expect our students to participate in these kinds of discussions online, we need to be very clear (and explicit) about what these kinds of interactions should look like and our expectations for student participation. We also need to model the kinds of postings we hope to see from our students.

Any comments or criticisms are welcome : )

andrew topper
GVSU School of Education
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 Effective discussion boards in online education by Janet Smith on June 24, 2003
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