Monday, March 29, 2010

Updated message board participation guidelines

Several years ago I posted instructions that I provide to my students at the start of a term to help them work on the message boards. In my pedagogy, I use the boards a lot, and one of my key suggestions for OWTs is to provide clear, detailed guidelines to students about how to work in this environment.

You may be surprised to find that you will get what you ask for: If you give guidelines for word count, students will more than meet you; if you say you want evidence, their posts will regularly have support; if you emphasize conversation, the environment will become a dialogic forum. It seems in talking with teachers that many problems using asynchronous tools stem back to unclear guidelines. Remember that students won't naturally how an academic interaction should look in an electronic environment.

Since that earlier post, I've made a number of changes to those guidelines--and I hope some improvements--and I wanted to update them here. The highlights of these changes reflect some of my refining of how to teach writing online.

First, I start off the guidelines now with four general rules that I want students to follow, reinforcing that I want them to read the posts, check the message boards regularly, provide a clear identity for themselves when they post (often the students' preferred names and their "official" names in the CMS are not the same), and, most importantly, build a conversation. I found myself repeatedly reminding students of this on the boards themselves, and while I still remind them, now I can refer them back to these guidelines when I do so.

I also now clearly divide the posts into three categories: primary, secondary, and "peeps." Peeps, and, I swear, the connection with Twitter "tweets" was just coincidental, are very short posts--even a word or two--designed to add conversational "glue" to this environment. In addition, I elaborate in the guidelines again about the importance of reading, advising students not to "post and run" or "post blind." Finally, I also describe the general thread categories that I use in the class, reinforcing their usefulness.

Here are these updated guidelines (again, I use Bb Vista):

Guidelines for participating on Bb Vista Discussions

Conversations that we have via Bb Vista Discussions will make up a major part of the work in this course. In most cases, I will pose a question or issue, and then you will respond to me or your colleagues or you will build a new idea based on the topic at hand. The responses will form useful and often fascinating conversations about the issues we are tackling. The whole time, we will be working on your writing; after all, that is what this class is all about. A few general matters:
  • Part of your responsibility as a student in this class is to read all of the posts. Yep, I mean all of them. At the end of the week, you should have no bold-faced, unread posts.
  • Check the Discussion boards regularly. You need to get into good habits starting in week one.
  • Make sure you sign your name at the bottom of your post. We want to know how to respond back to you.
  • As I describe below, you will write “primary,” “secondary,” and “peep” posts. It is important that we build a conversationwith these posts. After I read your primary posts, I will post specific questions throughout the term, as will your colleagues. Make sure you look at those questions and respond to them. You’ll soon see how this works, but do not simply reply over and over again to my initial prompt.
You will have three types of posts: “Primary,” “secondary,” and “peeps.” Each week, I will let you know how many primary and secondary posts are due. During the term, you are responsible for 10 “peeps”: The “peeps” are very short responses to someone else’s posts, usually only a sentence or even a few words. Here are the more involved guidelines for the other posts:

Rules for "primary” posts—these posts should be

  • 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. My students and I have found that these mini-essays present many excellent opportunities to refine the ability to make a clear, focused point when writing. In other words, these posts are great practice.
  • Detailed. Each of your "primary" 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.)
  • 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 a major project you turn in for a class. I understand that it will take some time for us to reach a mutual understanding of the appropriate level of formality.
  • 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.
  • Courteous. We don't always have to agree (in fact, the class will be a disappointment if we always do), but no one should resort to flaming attacks.

Rules for "secondary" posts—"Secondary" posts should be similar to the above, but they can differ from "primary" posts by being

  • Less detailed: Response posts can be one paragraph.
  • Shorter: Response posts only need to be about 75 words.
Following are additional instructions:

Grading—Your Discussion work each week will be worth 20 to 30 points, adding up to a total of 250 points at the end of the term. In evaluating your posts, I will use these criteria:

  • If you complete them in an adequate manner, you will receive Bs.
  • If you go above and beyond the basic requirements of the assignments, you will receive As.
  • Very good—completed with a great deal of effort and thought—posts will receive full credit (e.g., 25 out of 25). You can also get full credit for posting with great passion or imagination.
Your Discussion posts will receive a C or below if they
  • are too short.
  • show little thought (especially if they answer questions in the same way other students have already answered).
  • are excessively sloppy in terms of grammar, spelling, and mechanics, especially to the point that they are difficult to understand.
  • engage in personal attacks or other breaches of common online etiquette.
  • are late.
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.
  • Don’t “post and run”—Once you post, you’re OBLIGATED to see what people say. In some cases, it seems weary students abandon their ideas after they post. More specifically, if someone responds to you, you should follow up with a response, however brief. I must admit that I feel miffed (and sometimes a little lonely) when I post and I’m ignored.
  • Don’t “post blind”—Try to be original. Don’t say the same thing as many other posts on a thread. Read before you post. Part of your job in the class is to “up the ante” with each post.
Shorter posts—In the spirit of keeping the conversation flowing, feel free to post as many shorter, informal comments on the Discussion threads as you like; for instance, writing a quick sentence to clarify a point or to state your agreement with another author’s point of view. But remember the rules for "primary" and "secondary" posts.

Staying current—In the Weekly Plan, you will see what Discussion topics are due and the deadlines for "primary" and "secondary" posts. One of your responsibilities in taking this hybrid course is that you will check the Discussion boards frequently and stay current on the conversations taking place there.

Extra credit—Those of you who are diligent, active members of these Discussions will find that you will receive a high grade for the ELC component of the course. If you post more than the required number of posts, you will be eligible for extra credit (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).

In addition to the specific, graded Discussions about class readings and assignments, I have also created Discussion topics for general conversations you might want to have:

  • "Questions about the course” is a Discussion area you can use to ask questions about any work in the class. Before you email me with questions, post them to this forum. I will answer many common questions here, and you’ll be able to see the kinds of questions your classmates have. These too do not count for your grade, but many of my students have found this Discussion area to be quite useful.
  • "Lounge" is a Discussion thread you can use to talk about anything you wish. The only rule in Lounge is that you show basic standards of courtesy to your colleagues. These posts do not count for your grade.
  • “Tips Advice and Resources” is a place for us to post anything we come across that seems relevant to the work of the course.
  • “Writing puzzles” is a place where I will post specific writing “puzzles” based on the writing in the Discussion posts. I will randomly pick some materials for us to think about; even my own writing is game for this topic.
You will find, I believe, that through these Discussions you will have many opportunities in this course to work on and develop your writing. Make sure you take advantage of those opportunities.