You are taking two online classes at university. Both have content delivered online and discussion boards where participation is optional.
In one, the lecturer responds to every single discussion post within a few hours, sometimes with a thoughtful comment, a follow up question or just a ‘thanks for your contribution’. Other students follow this example, gently encouraged, and the discussion snowballs. Participation is high, because feedback is high. Classmates feel their opinion is valued by each other and they know that the lecturer is paying attention to what they say.
In the other, the following message is posted above the discussion boards:
Just some advice for contacting me during the trimester – I check discussion boards twice a week – but am on email Mon-Fri during working hours – so if you need an immediate response, email thisaddress@thisuniversity.
The discussion board remains empty.
Which would you say is an effective learning environment?
I am currently studying two units and, like the ones above, they couldn’t be more different. In fact the differences are even more pronounced because unlike the first example, in one of the units, participation is not limited to the university’s discussion boards. It carries on to Twitter, YouTube, Soundcloud, personal blogging sites – wherever students choose to initiate conversations.
This is important for student engagement for a number of reasons.
1. It’s easy to join in. Most students already know how to use social media platforms, and they are usually within arms reach on phones, tablets and laptops.
2. It’s a known environment. Again, most students are familiar with social media and they’ve had plenty of practice posting. Although their tone might need to become a little more professional, they know the etiquette and the expectations and they can relax. It’s the difference between a coffee with a colleague and a meeting in the boardroom.
3. It’s easy to give and receive feedback. We all crave validation. On Twitter, it’s as simple as clicking the heart, and your fellow student knows they have been heard. A meme speaks a thousand words – no formulating researched responses required.
The informal style and opportunity for wordless response on social media does not reduce the quality of academic discussion, but enriches it. Ease of use and instant validation means that students are more willing to take risks and be active in the conversation. The entry level is low and rewards are high, but once students are in the habit of participating, and feel welcome to participate, the real meaty discussions can begin.
We may be witnessing a ‘crisis of engagement‘ at universities, but students still have many valid points to add to academic discussions. These conversations are essential to encourage critical thinking and to facilitate deep understanding of complex concepts, and online students miss out when unit participation is limited to the foreign and sometimes deserted territory of university discussion boards.
Nobody wants to yell into the void.