Welcome again to The Teaching Workshop, where your questions related to pedagogy are answered. Each post features questions submitted by readers with answers from others within the profession. Have a question? Send it to PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com, or participate in the APA Teaching Workshop on Facebook.
Wendy Turgeon has been teaching online classes since the 1990s. Below, she tackles some of your questions about online pedagogy.
Question: I teach online classes with 30 students each, and I use discussion boards to encourage student discussion. However, I don’t know how to encourage students to actually interact with each other’s posts, rather than just ignoring them or offering perfunctory responses. What can I do to make online discussions valuable and meaningful for the students?
Wendy’s Answer: I too like to see the discussion board as the heart of a philosophy class, or any class where ideas need to be examined and talked through. Undergraduates in particular need guidance here. I suggest establishing a clear rubric for participation. How often? When? And how? I require students to post throughout the week/unit and have even specified days (e.g., Monday–Wednesday for opening posts; Wednesday–Friday for commentary on two fellow participants ideas; weekends for checking and responding or summarizing.) Indicate that you want them to answer some questions, reply to others, raise questions, find exceptions, etc. While they can post anytime they choose, be sure to honor those who follow the rubric, and when grading the week or unit, add comments to encourage those who are not meeting your requirements. I respond to posts but do not respond to every post, as that doubles everyone’s reading. I also include a document with sample posts that illustrate a bad to mediocre to excellent post. For example: “I agree!” does not count as much as a paragraph that explains why the student agrees. That said, I do find undergraduates do not easily self-manage their engagement in online courses, so being up-front about your expectations and sticking to them can help them learn both the material and how to engage in a productive way in an online conversation.
One final comment: 30 students is a lot of students, in an online class, for meaningful discussions. You might try breaking them into groups and use the group function in your LMS (Learning Management System). It can be overwhelming and discouraging to sign in and see 100 unread posts. Frankly, when I take a MOOC, I seldom use discussion for that reason. Who has time to read 1500 posts? So if your class is large, consider using the group function. But the real key is outlining what you expect of them, and monitoring their performance. Grade promptly after each discussion unit so they can learn.
Question: Recently, I had five complete no-shows in my online class. They never responded to emails or even logged into the class. Is this common? I want students to know that responding to emails is required, but I also don’t want to harass them. How should I handle this sort of no-show behavior?
Wendy’s Answer: Much as in face-to-face classes, some students register and then just never really attend. It can be even more common with online classes, as students think taking an online class is a good idea until the reality hits them. Since they do not need to show up in a physical classroom, they can easily forget all about it. With online classes, it is easy to report last date of sign-in or posting. Many schools have clear rules on student participation, so be sure to ask your department if there is such a rule. Many also require reporting “no-shows” or those who drift away. If you are requested to report students in these situations, be sure to do so. This helps the institution avoid the financial aid scam that, alas, can happen.
However, it is worth sending out an announcement/email to alert students to the beginning of classes. And check in during and after the first week with those who have not shown up yet. Most colleges control who registers for online classes, and most offer training to facilitate students’ understanding of how they work. At a certain point, you have done your due diligence and need not continue to email them. You are not their parent. What is trickier to deal with is how to handle those who come in two weeks or more late and hope to “catch up.” I always think of the students who have been engaged all along and want to be fair to them by not giving a free ride to the latecomers. But there you can make your own decision, based on circumstances, and—of course—your institution’s policy.
Question: I’ve got an idea to use asynchronous online communication to help students who are too nervous to participate in my “face-to-face” classroom discussions. What online strategies are effective for reaching (and encouraging) students in this manner?
Wendy’s Answer: You have presented a good reason to encourage students to take online classes—they can participate without having to speak off the cuff, as it were. The more shy student can speak up more comfortably in an asynchronous environment and has time to compose his or her thoughts. But if they are failing to post, they need to see a value in using this kind of discussion, whether part of an online class or simply an online supplement to a traditional face-to-face class. You can weave the discussion board participation into the course requirements or offer extra credit for those who use this option. Show them how posting helps them to better understand the material, makes class more meaningful, and allows them to contribute to the collective learning experience.
In some LMSes, you can also allow anonymous posts, if you wish to invite them to ask questions and are concerned that they might be uncomfortable with showing ignorance in front of peers. (This should not be the case with philosophy classes, as recognizing one’s ignorance is the first step to wisdom, right?) However, generally, posting under their own names allows students to demonstrate their thinking to you and fellow participants. If you are trying this for the first time, maybe have a week or two (or however long) where you actively require that they post, and then, as a class, evaluate how this was helpful or not. Hopefully, they will discover that posting allowed them the time to process and formulate better questions and clearer responses. Good luck!
Wendy’s question for you: I’m curious about what readers think about the different LMSes available out there? I’ve been using Blackboard for a while now, and I would love to hear other people’s suggestions for what LMS to use.
- “When to Jump In,” Mazzolini and Madison
- “Ten Best Practices for Teaching Online,” Boettcher
- “Blending for Student Engagement,” Montgomery et al.
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