Managing a forum in an online class

One of my jobs this semester with the Institute for Mathematics and Education is to work on a standardized online version of our classes.

Our target audience is working teachers throughout our state (and hopefully in the future, the country), so while we can require some synchronous communication (like Skype or a text chatroom) or even in-person meetings (or at least an intensive weekend session) we need some of our interaction to be asynchronous.

However, in the classes I have taught and taken, asynchronous communication has always been a problem. For example:

a.) The standard system seems to be for the teacher to post a question prompt and the students to respond. Often (to ensure the students are live and active) the students are required to make a certain number of “points” which must be unique in some way. This causes the effect of a “rush to post” because often there are only 4 good points to make and every other post is a rewording or an inane stretch of logic.

b.) Discussions can be very, very broad as all 30-or-so students respond individually. Even instructor comments can make reading the forum seem more like a free-for-all and a class.

c.) Some of the really useful interactions just don’t seem to happen. For instance, at an Algebra class at our school we had a discussion if 2+3=5 is an equation (some students held it was a “statement” or some such but not an equation) and through gradual steps all students were led to an understanding. Online it is very difficult to have that kind of slow build; from the classes I’ve taken instructor comments might as well have been sections read out of a book.

My current thoughts to a solution: allow “comment highlight” from the instructor as some blogs do, where “starred” comments rise to the topic and the instructor can lead the discussion to stop responding to the broad question but only reply to the comments. Essentially the instructor would need a “dynamic prompt” that changes with the discussion rather than a one-shot over the week.

I’d also like some way of steering the discussion to allow those who haven’t interacted yet to jump in (just like you don’t always call on the student who shoots their hand up every time) but I would like a more polite way of doing in than “blocking” a student who needs to give some space.

Finally I think the instructor ought to be able to “condense” some comments if a thread gets too complicated to follow, to focus students on the most recent things said.

I’d like to hear from who has experience with a successful or unsuccessful asynchronous online class. I especially would like their “wish list” for an online forum where (just imagining, here) technical obstacles do not exist.

3 Responses

  1. In this situation, where you want individual student responses to be ‘reasoned’ or get an idea what each student really thinks on a question requiring a fixed number of points to be made, I’ve found it can be better to have a group, rather than/as well as a forum, where a deadline is set for posts to the group and all posts are moderated and held until the deadline. That way, everyone gets a say and students/instructors can comment on posts to the group individually, as they wish. Subject lines for the e-mail can be pre-specified so that threads are more easily maintained on the task assigned.

    Forums probably work better as a more free-form exchange of ideas, where the student who always has to be first can be without impacting so much on those who need to take more time to formulate their ideas. Alternatively for discussion on points of clarification or confusion.

  2. We are currently in beta with our Ning online community here in our university, and we are always in a discussion of the pros and cons of online discussions. The problems you discussed above is a good input. Thanks for posting.

  3. Interesting to hear Ning being discussed a possibility. I was recently at the NCTM 2011 meeting in Indianapolis where Leigh Nataro discussed her success in using Facebook groups as a discussion forum with her students. My post on this follows:

    http://www.techpoweredmath.com/nctm-day-four-ipad-books-3d-printin/

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