I’ve taught a number of courses on campus (on and off for the last 13 years), and only 2 ecampus courses, and until recently, I would have absolutely agreed that discussions in online campus were much less stimulating than in-person discussions. However, recent experiences in two on-campus classes have changed my mind.
In these two courses, both of them upper division writing courses, I’ve treated the discussion like a hybrid event, requiring them to post ideas and responses to a given article on discussion board before we discuss it in class. The idea there is to jump start the conversation ahead of time, to require them to put some thoughts into words before we start class. My hope was to avoid the “warm-up” period in discussions, when students are trying to formulate thoughts and even remember what the reading was about (if they even did it). I didn’t expect this process to create instant magic, but I expected it add a little life and energy to our sometimes lackluster discussions.
What I found, instead, was that the online discussions were really quite good. I set word limits and point values, and students stepped up to the plate. (Can you tell I spent the evening at the little league fields?) Because it was a defined assignment with a grade attached, they put real thought into it and I was excited by what I saw happening on discussion board. However, when they came into the class, they were hesitant or even resistant to expand on their ideas, and to respond to each other in person. I even went so far as to make notes about who said what on discussion board, and then call on them in class to expound, and most of the time they wouldn’t even say as much as the original post. In other words, they did better in the virtual world.
I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me, since they also spend a majority (?) of their social time in the digital world as well. I’ve just been pondering the implications of these two classes. Have students become just too uncomfortable with spontaneous F2F interactions?
My husband also teaches both F2F and online, and seconds my findings that students online often get much better discussions off the ground. I think this might say something scary about us, but as online instructors, we can surely use this to our advantage.