Friday, July 31, 2009

How much should you participate in student online conversations?

I am often asked how much I think teachers should participate with message boards and other asynchronous writing environments.

There's not a one-size-fits-all rule, but I say this: You should be involved with the writing your students do in these communication environments.

Some teachers take a hands-off approach. Their reasons may range from the soundly pedagogical--not wanting to commandeer class conversation--to the practical--they have many classes and can't keep up with the conversations.

For sure, there can be a danger to your over-participation in these environments. As George Collison and his co-authors said, you can fall into "Hijacking the Dialogue" (1)--shutting down conversation or dominating it so students have little room to express their own views.

The dialogue among students in asynchronous environments can often be about students' communicating with each other, honing and refining their writing. You can obstruct that with over-involvement. In my classes, though, much of the teaching of the class takes place in these environments. So while I encourage student-centered discussion, I realize I need a voice. After all, I am the teacher. All student posts are not equal: Some of their posts digress, and sometimes they're plain wrong. I need to provide them with the support and guidance they expect from the teacher.

Also, some teachers have impossibly heavy teaching loads, and it may indeed be difficult to be active in all of the conversations taking place. However, if you don't participate much because of the time it takes, I think we need to go back again to comparing your online or hybrid courses with your f2f teaching, not just in terms of what you do, but the time it takes.

No matter how many sections of f2f writing you're teaching, you wouldn't simply show up in your f2f class and sit there silently every class while students talk--no matter how student-centered you are. That sort of "transfer" thinking should apply here to the way you conduct your online classes. Even if you need to set a timer, you should dedicate some of the time you would have spent in an f2f class to participating in your online conversations.

As you know if you read this space, I think a tremendous amount of student-directed writing and learning takes place in asynchronous environments. But if we are completely--or even mostly--absent from these conversations, then a variety of things might happen:
  • Students might view the whole exercise as busy work. Disgusted students may even put up nonsense posts or cut-and-paste the same comments from week to week to see if the teacher will catch on.
  • The conversation could go off track or, worse, could get nasty. As the teacher, you have a responsibility to create a sense of decorum, much as you would in the classroom.
  • As I mentioned, the learning in the class might be compromised. My asynchronous conversations build the learning of the course. I must have hand in shaping that learning.
What is the ideal response rate? I have a loose goal--that I do come surprisingly close to hitting each term--of having a quarter of the posts be mine. So about one out of every four posts is from me. This varies significantly. Some threads buzzing along so nicely that my comments would only intrude. Other threads seem to need an every-other post from me.

While some teachers have success with minimal posting, I think we must be mindful of being too hands-off. While moving the teacher away from being the center of all class activity and conversation is a good thing, an absent teacher could breed resentment and frustration among students, short-circuiting the learning goals of the course.


1) From the great book by George Collison, Bonnie Elbaum, Sarah Haavind, and
Robert Tinker: Facilitating Online Learning: Effective Strategies for Moderators. Madison: Atwood Publishing, 2000.