Monday, October 17, 2005

Message boards (part 2)

As I said, in a ten-week (again, we’re on a quarter system at Drexel) online class, my students write 30 “official” message board posts.

These conversations have been strong; in some cases, they’ve been brilliant. My first-year students crank hard on topics ranging from changes to the science curriculum to Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”

To make message boards work in your first-year writing class, first off, the conversations should have high stakes. The message board discussions in my online classes are worth 25% to 35% of the overall grade.

Also, I define carefully what I want—without being so rigid that I kill the conversation before it starts. Following are my rules for using WebCT Discussions in my online classes. I use similar rules in f2f and hybrid courses, as the Discussions still play a major role in these courses as well.

From my syllabus:
Conversations that we have via Discussions will make up a major part of the work in this course. In most cases, I will pose a question or issue to you, and then you will respond to me or to your colleagues. The responses will form a useful conversation about the issues we are tackling. Please read the material below carefully.
1) Rules for “official” posts—These posts should be:
a) Essays. Responses should not be one simple paragraph, and I expect them to reflect some reasoned thought on your part, thought beyond what you might put into a normal email or chat response. Think of them as mini-essays that help you make a clear, focused point. Remember, you’re trying to develop your writing; these posts are great practice.
b) Detailed. Each of your “official” posts must be at least 125 words. (Note: I’m not as interested in the actual word count as I am in the depth of your ideas. Obviously a post like “Me too!!!” doesn’t qualify as an “official” post.)
c) Semiformal. Your posts should contain some degree of formality: spell-checked, organized, etc. However, they will also be part of a dialogue, so in that regard, they will differ from an essay you turn in for a class. It is inevitable that we will take some time to reach a mutual understanding of the appropriate level of formality.
d) Referenced. While you won’t always need citations in your posts, you should look for opportunities to build your argument by referencing our readings, other sources, or your colleagues’ comments.
e) Courteous. We don’t always have to agree, but no one should resort to flaming.
2) Grading—I will grade your “official” posts in accordance with these rules. In total, you’ll be responsible for 30 “official” Discussion posts. I will evaluate each one on a 10-point scale:
· If you complete them adequately, you will receive 8s.
· If you go above and beyond the basic requirements of the assignments, you will receive 9s.
· Very good—completed with a great deal of effort and thought—posts will receive 10s.
A Discussion post will receive a 7 or below if it:
· Is too short.
· Shows little thought.
· Is excessively sloppy in terms of grammar, spelling, and mechanics, especially to the point that it was difficult to understand.
· Engages in personal attacks or other breaches of common online etiquette.
· Is late (see Course Policies)
3) Reading—You are responsible for reading all of the posts in the class, although you can obviously focus your attention on the threads in which you are directly engaged.
4) Shorter posts—Feel free to post as many shorter, informal comments on the Discussion threads as you like; for instance, a couple of lines to clarify a point or to state your agreement with another author’s point of view. But remember the rules for “official” posts.
5) Staying current—One of your responsibilities in taking an online version of English is that you will make it a daily habit to check the Discussion boards and stay current on the conversations taking place there.
6) Extra credit—Those of you who are diligent and become active members of these conversations will find that you will receive a high grade for the Discussion component of the course. If you post more than 30 “official” posts, you will be eligible for extra credit in the course (some of you may naturally find that you have more to say on some of our topics this term, so I want to reward you if you put in extra work on some of the Discussions).

Simple constraints like multiple paragraphs and a word count give your students a clearer idea of what you’re looking for (a word count works wonders for not only message board posts but assignments such as peer reviews as well), and if you ask them for something like references (with the occasional reminder), I’ve found they will come through quite well. Build in the rules you think appropriate—while remembering that these posts are conversational pieces of writing.

In my third and final post about message boards, I will say a few more words about how I grade these posts, following this philosophy: don’t let yourself be the bottleneck in the system.