Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Taking discussion online

Online discussion allows students to interact with classmates outside class. An online discussion is not fixed in time or space: students can log on at any time from any Internet-enabled computer to seek clarification for issues they encounter in their coursework, to discuss topics raised in class, or to initiate new discussions on related topics. A successful online discussion has the same synergistic effect of group or in-class discussion, in which students build on one another's perspectives to gain a deeper understanding of the materials.
An online class discussion area can be beneficial in a number of areas:
Class preparation. You can use a course discussion area to prepare for class and adapt class time to address the needs of the students. Monitoring the class discussion will help you identify topics that need clarification or that have captured the interest of your students, and you can use the insights you gain to structure class time. Also, if you use the Web discussion area to address some of the more straightforward student questions, you can make better use of class time.
Shy students. Students who are reticent in class may find an online discussion area the perfect place to discuss class topics. Participating in an online discussion is less threatening than speaking in front of peers. And in an online discussion, students can compose, edit, and refine their ideas before expressing them to the group. If you set up a discussion area for your course, you may find that some of your quiet students actually have a lot to say!
Sensitive issues. Discussion areas work well for courses that cover topics that may be too sensitive, controversial, or personal for some students to discuss face-to-face. Students contributing to online conversation may feel less exposed than in a classroom setting, particularly if you allow them to write using pseudonyms.
There are also drawbacks to using online discussion:
Too much participation. An active discussion area can add hours of reading to the regular course load, or distract students from other equally or more important coursework. A discussion area can also become unwieldy for the instructor: weeding through submissions and responding where needed can quickly become impractical. When thinking about whether to include a discussion area on your Web site, decide how much time you can (and want to) spend monitoring submissions. Consider assigning the task to a teaching or research assistant, but be sure to have him or her bring to your notice any items that might require your attention. You can also take a hands-off approach: create the discussion area for your students and make no attempt to monitor the activity. Although this approach does not take advantage of some of the benefits of a discussion site, it is still an advantage for your students. You might find that students are more apt to contribute if they know you're not listening.
Not enough participation. If you are contemplating online discussion for a course that does not normally have much in-class discussion, consider whether it is worth the effort. If the subject doesn't normally provoke much discussion in the classroom, you may find that the online discussion is limited to questions about assignments or scheduling. Be realistic about your expectations: don't go to the effort of setting up a forum thinking that your students will converse online if you are teaching a subject that elicits little in-class exchange. (See Encouraging participation, below.) Thank to

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