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Published April 26, 2009 | English (Language and Literature)

Give it a Try

Why not start an on-line discussion forum for the coming term? In so doing, you'll no doubt have an in-box stuffed with dozens of emails, week after week, waiting to be read (and possibly, to be responded to), in addition to your normal workload. Forget the sight of the buds on the trees and the lilacs beginning to bloom; forget working in the spring garden! If you're like me, you'll be checking, (happily checking!) out the latest comments from your students waiting for you on-line.

I started these forums upwards of 10 years ago. At the time I belonged to several academic listservs and found them most stimulating. I wondered if a similar format might work with my classes as well, and especially, if it might help elicit participation from the more reticent among the group. As it turned out, it worked better than I could have anticipated.

I can imagine that a discussion forum would be beneficial in just about any subject area. But I want to describe my particular experience, as a teacher of literature. In the discussion forum, (and indeed in my classes), I'm trying to encourage as much reflection about -- and discussion of -- the works on the course reading list as possible. As well, I try to enable students to better articulate and to discover their ideas.

In the "early" days, I set up a listserv through Yahoo.com which was quite easy to do. The only part that was a bit frustrating was collecting all of the email addresses from the class and inputting them. Those time-consuming set-ups are long gone now. With the advent of Ominivox, which incorporates email in the messaging system and includes a discussion forum option as well, it's very easy, even for someone like me who is not very technically-minded. One feature that I do recommend whatever system you decide to use is an archive. This can come in very handy, in case you are too rushed to note something at the time it is posted, or only later decide that you want to refer to some comment or idea.

The classroom can be a great place to inspire reflection, discovery, articulation, and discussion. Yet students are frequently unable, in the flow of the class, to express some of their ideas to the group.

The classroom can be a great place to inspire reflection, discovery, articulation, and discussion. Yet students are frequently unable, in the flow of the class, to express some of their ideas to the group. At times, also, only reflection subsequent to the class, affords them the opportunity to crystallize a concept, formulate a question, or to make a connection. In such scenarios, the discussion forum enables students to post comments, observations, questions, and the like that occur to them at any time over the course of the term. This adds to the sense in which the class is an ongoing activity and its subject matter food for reflection throughout the week.

Fellow students often respond immediately and (usually) in a non-judgmental way to such posts. And, not surprisingly, there is tremendous variety of opinions and ideas Many students are empowered (sorry for the buzz word) by their ability to express their thoughts to, and to elicit responses from, their peers on-line. This is particularly true for those students who are normally reticent in the classroom. Although they know that I read the posts, such doesn't seem to interfere with lively interchanges between them. I respond to contributions to the discussion forum infrequently, because I don't want to perpetuate on-line the overwhelming presence that I frequently (willy-nilly) assume in the classroom.

I use the discussion forum for all sorts of small, practical stuff too: to relay announcements, to offer links to readings, to distribute topics for assignments, and to clarify information when I need to. In the process, I save paper, and the time involved in distribution.

I make an extra effort to keep up with reading the posts, especially before I introduce a new work of literature. For I glean from them a sense of what is -- or is not -- clear to students about the texts, their literary-historical contexts and the like.

I make an extra effort to keep up with reading the posts, especially before I introduce a new work of literature. For I glean from them a sense of what is -- or is not -- clear to students about the texts, their literary-historical contexts and the like. At times, I bring excerpts from their posts of particularly thoughtful, provocative, or well-expressed interchanges to the classroom, focusing discussion around these. Linked here, for those of you who might be interested, are a few actual posts, a sampling of the sort of discussion that can develop on-line in an (introductory English) course.

I don't want to lose all credibility in my effusiveness. There are, occasionally, small technical problems that can arise, but with a minimum of effort they can be resolved. More troubling are the minority of students who simply go through the motions,(as in our classrooms), contributing little, if anything, to the discussion and others who never participate at all. To increase the incentive to participate I do give a proportion of the overall course grade (15-20%) to involvement in the discussion forum.

I allow students to discuss anything related to the literature or the class, rarely giving them specific questions to respond to. But I stipulate the need of weekly contributions. The allotment of marks encourages general participation, as well as rewarding students for a fair amount of work, not just in contributing to, but also in reading, the many comments and questions.

It's so difficult to say, at times, how much-or even whether-any given technology improves pedagogy. In this instance, however, it seems to enable and to encourage much communication about the material of the course and the issues raised in the classroom. On-line discussion may pale, in some respects, beside face to face interaction, yet it nonetheless facilitates surprisingly reflective communication among students throughout the week, particularly among those who are taciturn in the classroom.

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