Friday, July 30, 2010

Message board thread prompts (part II)

My last post focused on prompts for specific situations and particular assignments. This time I'm going to look at a few term-long message board strategies/techniques.

Student-generated topics. With minimal instruction from you, each week students can be responsible for creating a prompt that their classmates will discuss. You can set up a simple schedule (on the message boards) in the beginning of the term.

Student moderators. Students can sign up in the beginning of the term to serve as moderators in certain weeks. In an email, I ask that week's moderators to participate and push the conversation on their thread; at the end of the week I require that they post a summary of the conversation on their thread. In hybrid courses, you can also ask them to present at the beginning of an onsite class about their thread--this is a great online-onsite bridge.

Peer reviews. I talk more about peer reviewing in an earlier post, but I wanted to emphasize that because message boards facilitate such easy sharing of writing, they are a great place for peer review. Using your guidelines, students can swap documents on the message board and/or work in small peer review groups. For hybrids, it makes a lot of sense to me to migrate your peer reviews online.

Portfolios. We're in the midst of an eportfolio initiative at Drexel, and the more we talk about portfolios, the more I see connections between electronic informal work and portfolios. A portfolio is a natural way for students to reflect on the rich body of work they create on the message boards. Now, I advocate significant teacher participation on the threads, but a reflective portfolio can also allow students to account for their writing in ways that may help with grading, especially for teachers with lots of students. Using the portfolio as their "raw material" also strikes me as a great way for students to create authentic responses when they write a reflective analysis of their work.

Class introspection threads. If you're gutsy, you can ask them on a thread to reflect midterm about the progress of the course. Of course, these comments will not have the anonymity of a midterm evaluation, unless your message board software allows for that, but this thread allows students to talk together with you about the course and its progress.

Questions about the course. I ask students to post any questions to a thread like this, which saves considerable time and effort, as students often have similar questions and, perhaps more importantly, they often answer their colleagues' questions. I use a thread like this, regardless of the modality in which I'm teaching.

Writing “puzzles.” I think the community self-policing for style and grammar on the message boards is excellent, but I use the non-threatening writing "puzzle" thread to delve further into mechanics. In the beginning of the term, I tell students I will periodically mine the message boards (and in a class of 20, I have 15,000 to 20,000 words from which to work each week) for examples of mechanical/grammatical flaws. I'm not looking to embarrass anyone for typos: I pick out examples of passive voice, dangling modifiers, and the ubiquitous comma splice, and I ask students to identify and discuss the "puzzle." They have had some great, spirited conversations about these writing issues.

Self-editing of posts. In a thread called "post proofs" I ask students to pick a few of their own earlier posts, edit them, and then write briefly what they think of the posts now. This is a great metawriting exercise, closely aligned with portfolio reflection. Because posts are low stakes, I think using them for self-editing is more inviting than asking students to do the same thing on a major project worth 25% of their grade.

Favorite posts. I always use a "My favorite post" thread, on which I ask students to identify their favorite post from another student and describe, using quotes and evidence, why they liked it. I up the ante at the end of the term with a thread called "My favorite poster," which asks them to choose a student whose posts were consistently strong. This is a great way to "pay it back" in the course.

Using groups. Finally, most message board systems allow you to divide students into smaller teams. This has many advantages, including as a way to have students discuss content. You may want them, say, to identify logical fallacies using a sample reading. There may not be enough fallacies in the reading for the whole class to discuss, so you can break them into groups and have each group handle the assignment independently. You could have a group leader then "present" the conversation from the group on a thread accessible by the whole class.

I'm really just getting started. Message boards provide so many innovative ways to have your students write. Also, I think it's worth noting here that convening your colleagues to talk about their ideas for threads will invariably strengthen everyone's practice immediately. This simple technology allows endless creative pedagogical approaches, and, as I've said before, it's superb for writing instruction.