Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Message boards (part I)

Making the transition to teaching writing online can be nerve-wracking. Initially (much like when you first started teaching f2f), you’ll always feel like there’s something more to do. You’ll feel your novicehood acutely, and you’ll have this sense that you don’t know all the slick, complex tech tools that you should to teach effectively.

Don’t beat yourself up too much. You may find that simple message boards can provide a major vehicle for much of what you want to do. All course management packages have some form of message boards, and the boards themselves are versatile and easy to use. They provide a means of facilitating the sharing of writing in your class in ways that you may find open up incredible teaching opportunities.

As you think about using message boards, first, ask yourself a basic pedagogical question: What are my goals in the course? For me, two of my main teaching goals are conversation and writing.

Conversation. No matter how I’m teaching, I want students building knowledge in the class by talking to each other. In my first-year writing classes, the knowledge of the course is largely constructed by students. Mainly, I want to
· Create an open environment in which students feel free to contribute their ideas
· Allow all students to voice their thoughts
· Give students time to think over complex points made by me and their colleagues and respond to those points

In some ways, message boards work even more effectively than my best in-class facilitation skills. For instance, with the message boards, all students really can contribute to a conversation, and the anonymity of the boards can create, as Gail Hawisher said, an open environment with more equitable participation (1). Students also have time to think over their contributions, and, because I believe in writing to learn, I think the conversations on the boards have a level of sophistication beyond many f2f class discussions.

Writing. While saying that I have a goal of “writing” in a writing class may seem painfully obvious, I mean that I want my students to learn how to incorporate writing into various aspects of their thinking and learning—not just write papers. That goal encompasses
· Practicing the skills of invention and taking risks
· Understanding how writing can be used to learn
· Negotiating multiple audiences
· Helping students develop authority through writing, including having students use each other as sources

By using message boards, I provide students with many low-stake opportunities to write, helping them practice and refine their thinking through writing. Also, they can use their writing to develop a point, building authority while speaking not just to me but to their peers.

In a ten-week online class, my students write 30 “official” posts, creating another 3,000 to 4,000 words on top of the papers of the course. What do I mean by official? I’ll explain that next when I describe the nuts and bolts of how I use message boards.

1) From “Electronic Meetings of the Minds” in Re-Imagining Computers and Composition (1992).