Thu, 11 Sep 2003 03:22:06 GMT

Discussion Board Revitalization Kit: Wooden Stake? Weird Costumes? Magic Pansy Juice?.

I love what James Farmer has to say about the Discussion Board.  I mean, how many of us have started out feeling fairly enthusiastic about participation and posting, just to watch the dog roll over and play dead.  All the factors he mentions – rigid format, inflexible interface, blah graphics, counterproductive semiotic content – just absolutely eviscerate good, creative, spontaneous writing energy.  It’s definitely sad to see.


Here are a few other issues:


1—Required Postings. In theory, this is a great idea.  It’s a kind of “guided” discussion, and it provides incentives (fear of a bad grade) for posting.  Sometimes the discussion gets going in spite of the grim overhang of pressure knowing that you’re expected to say something articulate, insightful, profound, and sage.  No wonder people freeze up with terminal writer’s block.  No wonder they resort to paraphrasing the required texts or lecture notes.  Granted – one needs to reward participation. The key is making the switch from motivation based on fear of punishment to motivation based on intrinsic rewards. 


2—Unintended Public Humiliation by Prof.  This is more prevalent than you might think.  I’ve seen it happen over and over again – by nice, kind-hearted souls, who would never DREAM of making rude or disparaging comments to a student in class.  Yet, in the public forum of a Discussion Board, they suddenly become harsh, unintentionally (one hopes) sarcastic, and abrupt.  Or, they are transparently cheerleader-ish, which is humiliating in its own right because it comes across as either patronizing or harried (no time to read and contemplate the comments, so let’s just placate them with a pat on the head).


3—Threads Resembling Gordian Knots.  I remember catching a part of an old Star Trek that dealt with something called a “Gordian Knot,” which was based on the story of Midas and the intricate (and impossible to untangle) knot, which had no ends exposed.  The more you try to untangle it, the more it bunches up, turns in on itself, and is impossible to follow.  In theory, if a string or a thread turns into this, perhaps there are intriguing reasons for it.  In practice, it’s because posters aren’t really responding to each other on any sort of deep level.  Instead, they are hung up on one particular posting (rather than the evolution of ideas), or are simply repeating what they want to say.  It’s not a conversation at all, but a series of shrieks and moans.


I’ve decided to experiment with a few alternative strategies this semester to see if it will make a positive difference in the quality and quantity of postings. 


1—I Like it! / I Hate it!   Encourage discussions to express real opinions about the course content – not just parrot something from the text in order to satisfy the posting requirement part of their grade.


2—Alter Egos, Inc.  Ask students to assume “alter egos” – perhaps a persona based on something or someone from the course.  For example, if it’s an American History course, perhaps someone could assume the role of Andrew Jackson.  Another person could be Andrew Jackson’s nemesis.  The key is to allow students to choose roles they feel they can develop an affinity with.  Make sure that everyone knows that there is an emphasis on “play” in the idea of “role play” !!


3—The Beautiful Letdown.  Let students express their disappointments in the text, the readings, the people you’re studying.  Encourage them to problem-solve and propose alternative scenarios or solutions. 


4—Helping Hands.  Encourage problem-focused groups and/or discussions.  Assign collaborative projects which will require individuals to overcome their natural reticence, or their fear of uploading.  The best groups are often ones that come together in a natural way in order to help solve a problem or develop a team project.  Sometimes group and collaborative work needs to be choreographed, at least at first.  One way to encourage a helpful attitude is to open up a discussion thread, “A Cry for Help!”  and encourage students to post their problems, fears, questions, etc. – but one must definitely set limits and protocols to keep from problems from springing up.


The suggestions listed above are but a few ideas of the many, many ideas that are out there to try.  The key is to think of yourself in the role of facilitator, playmaster, emcee, clown (okay maybe not that).  Discussion boards need to be a bit polemical in order to be effective.  Be innovative.  Let yourself be a bit wacky.  You’ll be glad you did (even if some of your students are confused at first). 


this goes in the teaching category as i'm getting ready to revise some syllabi and actually restructure to some extent the goals of my primary teaching duties soon. this is the sort of thing that i can use though.