Sunday, October 17, 2004

The Dreaded “Sage on the Stage” Comes Back -- In the Discussion Boards!

When you think of a professor-dominated discussion board, do any of the following things come to mind? a) the instructor is a pompous know-it-all; b) I'd better be careful and make sure and say what the instructor wants me to say; c) I don't want to respond to a classmate's question -- what if I'm wrong and the professor sees it?; d) It is time-consuming to read the professor's responses to everything, and I don't have time for my regular assignments; e) I want to be encouraged, not overwhelmed; f) It is boring to read my classmates’ postings because they are simply parroting what the professor has already said, and are not willing to ask tough questions, or make intellectually challenging statements.

One of the most enduring beliefs about online education is that it transforms the passive learning experience one finds in a classroom where the professor lectures while the students sit and wordlessly take it all in, into a dynamic, interactive learning experience that puts the student in the driver’s seat, with the instructor as a kind of driver’s ed teacher seated in the passenger’s side, but with a dual brake – essentially a “guide on the side” to keep you from killing yourself.

But, does that really happen in ordinary practice? Sadly enough, it is not unusual to see cases where the discussion board does not function as a non-punitive environment, nor does it encourage the open exchange of ideas. Instead, I see all the negatives of the “sage on the stage” passive, professor-dominated classroom, along with a few other negatives thrown in, which include learned helplessness, bullying, intimidation, self-censoring, unreflective echoing of professor lecture notes, and other behaviors.

I've tried all sorts of techniques in discussion boards, and one thing I keep wondering about is this: if the professor responds to each posting, does it discourage students from working with each other? For example, I've noticed that the students in certain classes will be extremely responsive to each other's questions, especially when it is posed as "Does anyone know... ?" When I see that occurring, I prefer to take a “hands-off” approach. My thought is that if I jump in and answer the questions, it will discourage students from developing a sense of community. However, am I abandoning or neglecting the students?

I prefer to think that I am fostering creative problem-solving. Others may accuse me of slothful indifference. They may not realize that I’m reading all the postings. I will only intervene when it is a question that no one but the instructor can answer.

I like minimal instructor intrusion in the discussion board area. Of course, math courses and the sciences (physics, chemistry, etc.) are another issue (as you point out). Even though a student may have the problem worked out, he/she may not be able to explain it thoroughly. That said, I still think it is useful to have "virtual study groups."

Some of these ideas are based on what happens in multi-player video games -- instead of waiting for an "authority figure" to solve problems, people become resourceful and develop functional teams and engage in "just in time learning." These thoughts and principles are spelled out in James Paul Gee's wonderful book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning. He is a professor holding an endowed chair in the College of Education at the University of Wisconsin and is highly respected in his field. He was a keynote speaker at the International Conference of Educational Multimedia held in March 2004 in Quebec City, Quebec.

What Gee had to say absolutely captivated the audience -- he criticized traditional classroom learning and demonstrated how people learn in video games -- they figure it out & are rewarded all along the way -- and, they enjoy it, because it is a fascinating, tantalizing puzzle, as well as a test of skills and wit in a multiplayer environment. It teaches people to think and to problem-solve, and NOT to regurgitate memorized facts and figures, which are immediately forgotten.

I asked a few students, in a very unscientific survey, what they thought about it. I received some eye-opening responses. Here are a few of them, paraphrased and presented in the order in which the students tended to respond. It is a rather informal indicator of relative importance.

--- A sense of community and trust cannot happen in a discussion board where the instructor intrudes and inserts comments after every single posting.

--- Responding to each posting freezes out real discussion, and turns into "trying to please the teacher.”

--- Students are nervous about answering each other’s postings. "Learned helplessness" sets in as students wait for the teacher to give them the "right" answer rather than relying on each other. It also pits students against each other in a potentially negative environment of competition rather than intellectual exploration.

--- The professor is not “listening,” but pontificating. It is more effective when the professor responds only occasionally to individual postings, and once a week to sum up general trends and issues. If there are specific points to clarify, or to provide additional information, professor postings are welcome.

--- Professor postings that include graphics are effective, especially if they illustrate a point without being shocking or going off in an unrelated direction.

--- Humor and a positive tone are infinitely more effective than a didactic, preachy, “I’m-always-right” tone.

--- Badly utilized thread techniques create cognitive chaos. A nicely-ordered and arranged threaded discussion board is very effective, particularly when color coding is utilized.

--- Including links to lengthy examples (math problems, etc.) or lecture notes is better than putting it in the discussion board itself.

--- Discussion board topics should clearly relate to the course itself. This seems obvious, but it is ignored or disregarded every day. Derailing the conversation and starting to veer off into murky and potentially controversial territory is something that frequently occurs. It is perfectly okay for the instructor to remove irrelevant and improper posts (after notifying the person doing the posting, of course).

--- Rigid scoring rubrics discourage posting. There should be some leeway given to creative “flow.”
I’m going to embark on a literature search and start to develop a survey instrument to address some of these issues. It might be interesting to see how a “best practices” sense emerges, particularly in terms of different disciplines.

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