Friday, March 28, 2014

“Running Themes” on course message boards

This winter, I taught a graduate course for Drexel’s School of Ed: Using and Integrating Learning Technologies. The students were smart and hard-working, and they cranked on our message boards (through Bb Learn) all term. Through their efforts, I realized that I could easily and productively change my usual time-bound discussion thread approach, using the simple "walllessness" of online learning to build conversation spaces that ran all term.

This was a great aha moment for me. As I’ve described on this blog in some detail (e.g., see, I assign message boards in weekly “frames.” While I feel I do provide students with excellent thinking and writing opportunities, the conversations are organized and thus tend to exist within the constraints of week 1, week 2, etc.

That's pretty limiting. As onsite classrooms are bound by walls, my discussions were bound by weeks. When a week ended, normally the conversation would fade too. Sometimes I’ve extended conversations into a second and maybe third week, and I also use “general” threads – such as “Tips Advice Resources” – for other conversations, but our message boards are mainly controlled by time markers.

In the winter course, we had a couple of topics that kept re-emerging, so I did something simple: I opened up threads in a course forum called “Running Themes.” Students, in fulfilling their weekly requirements, were welcome to post in a Running Theme thread instead for some of their posts. And they did. They continued, in our case, to want to talk more about MOOCs or "What makes a good online/hybrid (blended) teacher?" Often, by the way, they would reframe our ongoing conversations about these topics based on current readings, building from dialogue in the weekly posts.

In retrospect, this was obvious. As I said, why was I constricting students? It didn’t make sense in online learning, which has the great advantage over onsite learning that it can naturally and easily extend dialogue. Conversations can happen in parallel, and they don't need to end when the bell rings at 2:00. Different students can dig into areas of high interest particular to them and enjoy the luxury of extending conversations after they've had time to percolate. Even if you have a tight, required-post type pedagogy, like I do, your messages boards can still be fluid and organic. (If you're worried that students will use Running Themes to excess and won't stay up with current material, it's easy to still require some posts in the weekly forums.)

Running Themes. I’m really happy with this idea and will create ongoing asynchronous conversation spaces in all of my courses.

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