Saturday, April 19, 2008

NACOL Webinar - Online Student-to-Student Collaboration

Thursday evening I had the opportunity to attend a NACOL Webinar presented by Susan Lowes from the Teachers College at Columbia University. "What Works in Student-to-Student Interaction in Online Courses" was attended by a number of virtual school teachers from across the country. I was able to ask questions in the chat room and learn a little more about online collaboration. Dr. Lowes presented the structure of interaction in threaded discussion. This was interesting to me because I've experienced some of the situations she spoke about in my online graduate courses. She explained that early posters in a threaded discussion get many responses. Those who post later get fewer and thus become "orphans" who may feel isolated from the rest of the class. This makes sense because early posters tend to move on, not returning later to read additional posts. So, the question becomes how to motivate everyone to post early enough in the thread and return to respond to others. One teacher on the conference gives additional points for students who post early.

Dr. Lowes also addressed the quality of student discussion threads. Respondents who question and challenge posts stimulate increased, deeper discussion. Cheerleading (attaboy) stops discussion. Somehow, students must be motivated to post quality content and thoughtful responses that facilitate the learning process. One teacher suggested only giving credit for substantive responses. Attaboys don't count. Another teacher designed a rubric for evaluating the quality of posts and responses.

Grading or rating posts seems logical to me, however Dr. Lowes pointed out that a minimum requirement for posts may lead some students to do a little as possible. I think this can be true of any assignment. I have found that many students will post much more if interested in the particular thread. Designing a good prompt is also important.

Dr. Lowes identified different types of "talk" in threaded discussions.
  • Disputational Talk - assertions are made in the post followed by counter assertions (arguments)
  • Cumulative Talk - post says something. Somebody adds to it.
  • Exploratory Talk - post presents new information. Different ideas are discussed before a decision is reached. This is the optimal threaded discussion talk, but doesn't happen often.
I'm thinking about how I will integrate threaded discussions into the courses I will be teaching next year. How will I create captivating prompts that motivate students to participate enthusiastically? Will these be graded? Will I require a certain number of posts and responses within a given timeline? How can I discourage cheerleading and reward thoughtful responses? What is the best way to design a prompt that encourages exploratory talk? This is a lot to think about. But, it helps to have some focus and direction when thinking about threaded discussion. I also wonder how these principles might be applied in the virtual school I'm observing.

Lowes, Susan. (April 17, 2008). What Works in Student-to-Student Interaction in Online Courses . Retrieved April 17, 2008 from NACOL webinar series in Elluminate at .


JeanneW said...

Posting early clearly results in greater participation in threaded discussions. Late posts seem almost like a waste of time sometimes. I know because I've done it both ways. Eleventh hour posts don't usually produce collaboration (I love the orphan comment) and probably result in lost learning opportunities. I like the idea of extra points for early posts.

Late posters do benefit from reading the early poster's work, but don't benefit from collaboration.

Your exploration into forum prompt design seems wise. Would you be allowed to use Elluminate in our program?

J-Lang said...


Great post! Oops, wait. I was just doing an attaboy. Let me correct myself. No, honestly, your post presents a lot of good information to consider for anyone teaching or taking an online course that might use threaded discussion. Thinking on my own experiences in the online Master's program, I've experienced each of these discussion scenarios you described. For me, I know I've been both and early and late poster, depending on how busy my schedule has been.

I do appreciate when people respond in a way that is challenging, so long as it hasn't been done rudely. Often I overlook things or don't have the knowledge that someone else might. It helps to have others share this information and their insights. I guess posting early to get extra points can be good incentive, but what about extra points for students to respond to a response? This way, they have to post in time for people to respond and then respond to that response. Or, maybe this could even been a requirement.


Mark said...

It's interesting to me how we often need to establish minimal requirements for activities, yet doing so can also end up restricting the participation. I bet experienced online teachers have tips on this. It would be interesting to see how the use of different strategies results in different levels of student participation. This is certainly something that I would be concerned about as an online teacher. How can we help each individual to complete the requirements, but also to learn as well as he or she can? I think the teacher having an extremely strong and consistent online presence can be helpful in motivating students. It's interesting that online learning can require almost complete independence of the student or it can be a synchronous environment that tries to mimic the traditional classroom.

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