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Talk About Teaching and Learning
January 22, 2008, Volume 54, No. 18

Talk Talk: Using On-Line Discussions to Promote Student Conversations

Catriona MacLeod

In teaching, some things go without saying: we are all looking for ways to get students engaged in critical thinking, writing and dialogue, both in and outside our classrooms. One method that allows students to experience all these goals is the computerized discussion board where students can respond in writing to the comments of others in the class. The simplicity and ease of use of the Blackboard discussion board feature has made it, for me, an appealing teaching technology that makes quick work of setting up on-line forums. I have implemented on-line threaded discussions as a productive central component of all of my courses, whether they be graduate seminars, small upper-level language and culture courses, or large general education lecture courses. My aims are similar in all of these pedagogical settings: to get students to interact with one another and engage with the subject matter of the course before and after class, and to provide channels through which ideas and knowledge can be actively constructed by a community of learners, not just transferred by a teacher. In addition to placing students in the role of creators and shapers of intellectual dialogue, I believe on-line discussions make expression more democratic.  They can provide a venue for the more introverted students in large lecture settings to participate in discussions, or for those who have dug into regular spots at opposite ends of the lecture hall to engage in conversation with classmates who are not regular “neighbors” in geographical space. 

Yet, like all other technologies that we use in our classrooms, on-line discussions can have their pitfalls. I have been giving increasing thought to how to make Blackboard forums a critical, and self-consciously integrated part of my everyday pedagogy. Most importantly, teachers must reflect on how online discussions connect with – or sometimes fail to connect with—what we do in class. It is crucial that the on-line discussion becomes a focal point of classroom time rather than a supplementary or isolated activity. Our students are loaded with information and assignments; they already spend a great deal of time online whether researching or using social networking sites, and they want the rationale for additional work that we have them do outside the class.  If an online discussion is to offer something more substantial than a series of unconnected, perfunctory responses to a weekly faculty-generated question, it should challenge the student to do more than (as one of my students objected last semester), “just phone it in.” Students also want to understand what our expectations are from then when they participate in on-line discussions.

If you are planning to integrate online discussions in your class, I recommend spending some time at the beginning of the semester explaining what you expect in student responses, just as you would provide both pragmatic and intellectual guidelines for other types of writing assignments. Let them know whether—and if so in what ways—you and or your teaching assistants will be participating in the forums, the deadlines, if any, for posting, and what, in your mind, constitutes a valuable contribution. I have found it an enriching (if somewhat time-consuming experience) to visit the discussion forum regularly—I read the new postings several times a week, and occasionally comment on-line (sometimes to point out errors of fact, far more often to enter into the debate, and never as a dominant presence).  In a large lecture course, it may be possible for a faculty member to share the work with teaching assistants, perhaps assigning certain weeks to be hosted by certain TAs. Most of my classes begin or end with issues that have been raised in that week’s on-line discussion.  (When a student has written a particularly eloquent, lengthy and considered response, I usually send him or her a separate e-mail to acknowledge the contribution.)  In other words, I try to show both in my own on-line comments and in class time that these discussions matter to me and to the shape of the course.  The question of whether or how to grade on-line discussions is a difficult one: grades are doubtless motivators for student investment, but they may also tamp down free discussion. In a language course, for example, it seems prudent to let the discussion board serve as a free space where language can be tested without potentially inhibiting concerns about grades. What has worked for me is to assign grades as a positive reinforcement for participation (along the lines of classroom participation), rather than grading individual responses, which can become a cumbersome process for both teacher and student. The best student responses are those that generate peer comments, questions, disagreements, debates: they can be open-ended or contentious, but they will always be an engagement with the initial question that stimulates further thought or spins off new threads in the conversation. (On a practical note, discourage students from posting their comments as attachments, since this tends to interrupt the easy reading of a forum.) The best questions are provocative and open-ended, challenging students to take positions in arguments raised by readings or to find ways of relating the course material to current debates or to the disciplines in which they are majoring.  In a lecture course I taught last semester entitled “Metropolis,” for example, a question about the success or failure of physiognomy as a strategy for reading urban crowds in nineteenth century literature led to a lively discussion comparing prose works by Poe and Balzac to current scientific findings relating to profiling and bodily gestures.  At the end of each course, and often at the mid semester point, I like to post an open forum, where students can raise issues of their own choosing.

The reflective use of technologies such as Blackboard’s discussion boards has meant making the most of their flexibility and simplicity, and calibrating the tool to the needs of students in different types of classes.  I have already given some concrete examples of how I use threaded discussions in large lecture courses, where it is on the one hand most difficult to engage in sustained class-room discussion and, on the other hand, where running a successful online discussion is also in some ways the most difficult to manage. In an upper-level literature course taught in German, the situation is different; yet what better way of getting students using and thinking about language than encouraging threaded discussions in the target language. Teaching a course on a notoriously hard-to-translate German concept such as “Heimat,” for example, I ask students to post and compare as many different semantically-related German words as possible and to try to produce an adequate American translation.  In this more intimate circle of learners, I also assign a student or a pair of students each week to summarize in class the most important findings or questions raised by the on-line discussions.

Finally, I have begun archiving the on-line discussions from my courses. A record of the give and take of a semester-long conversation, they can tell me what material has struck a chord with a group—and help me plan what will be up for discussion next time around.  Like other forms of computer-aided technology, I have found the discussion board productive not as an end in itself, but as a simple tool that we can use in a variety of ways to foster the conversations in our classes.


Dr. Catriona MacLeod is an associate professor of Germanic Languages & Literatures.

This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.


Almanac - January 22, 2008, Volume 54, No. 18