Over the last year, I have been participating in online discussions as part of the Instructional Techniques and Media (INTMEAU) module of the Postgraduate Diploma in Tertiary Education (PDTE) I am in the process of completing. The discussions assignment has not been successful for a number of reasons. I would like to offer some tentative suggestions about how the discussions could be facilitated, which would result in the discussions being an effective way for students to share their knowledge and experience with each other. I will discuss a few key issues: expectations about how to conduct the discussions, technical difficulties and technologically illiterate students, the facilitation of discussions, and the nature of the discussion questions.
Firstly, the expectations about the discussions were not clear. In the original parameters of the assignment, we were supposed to discuss a topic on a monthly basis. However, due to the lack of adequate student response, the assignment has been changed and we seem to be writing on all topics at once with the deadline being 30 September 2015. In addition to this, the topics for some of the discussions were altered halfway through, which further caused confusion. It was challenging to work out where we should post, what we should post, how long each post should be, and what the deadline for posting should be. It would be more effective for us to have remained within the original parameters of the assignment and to stick to one topic per month. This would have resulted in more fruitful discussions. Guidelines about where and when and how to post would have facilitated the process effectively. It would be useful to have a dedicated section on the module site with guidelines about due dates, links to how-to instructions, and appropriate information about correct netiquette to follow.
Secondly, technical difficulties and issues of technological literacy impacted on the success of discussions. The myUnisa platform is not user-friendly, or as well designed as more recent forum applications have become. Many people completing this course struggled with technological literacy skills. They did not seem to see the structure of the site, how menus and sub menus work, and how to reply to parent comments appropriately. Students did not follow the correct procedure for how threaded discussions should be conducted; this caused a great deal of confusion when reading the forum posts because people did not post in the correct place, or reply to parent comments correctly. It would be useful to have a frequently-asked-questions section with explicit instructions about how to post and reply correctly, and how threaded discussions should work. Lecturers and tutors should also be active on the discussions: they should respond to student issues in a timely fashion in order to assist with navigating the sites.
Thirdly, there are issues with the facilitation and moderation of discussions. Lecturers or tutors should moderate the discussions, in order to demonstrate to students that the forums are being read and evaluated. It would be useful to include summative feedback throughout the discussions to assist students with the acquisition of the knowledge and skills necessary to complete the goals of discussion activities properly. Moderators of the forums could encourage shy students to participate and dominant students to allow those who are more reticent to take part. At this point, the issue of appropriate netiquette needs to be raised. It is discouraging when people do not acknowledge a person’s post, and merely rattle off their own opinion without engaging in a real discussion. In order to prevent this, discussions need to be moderated. Students need to be reminded about appropriate behaviour when discussing topics. Just because a discussion is online, does not mean that normal polite conversational conventions should be ignored! A list of do’s and don’ts regarding behaviour on the forums would be beneficial, especially for those who are unfamiliar with standard netiquette. Related to the issue of poor netiquette, is the problem of shallow posts that do not demonstrate application of course content with enough detail and depth. Similarly, posts that merely say “good point” without adding anything further to the discussion should be discouraged. Good moderation will yet again be a solution to this issue. Shallow posts can be responded to with questions that encourage the original poster to elaborate on their ideas with more suitable information.
The discussion questions need to be related to the goals and outcomes of the course, and it needs to be clear how the discussions can contribute to the learning experience. Questions should be linked to lessons objectives for the module, and students should be encouraged to use a variety of sources that relate to the topic. In this INTMAEU module, the questions were clearly connected to the learning goals and would have allowed a space in which students could learn from each other effectively. However, may students did not participate in the discussions, despite the fact that these discussions form a part of our final mark. It would be beneficial to explain how the discussions can contribute to learning, and to include expectations about participation, particularly the standard of work that is expected as well as due dates for each discussion.
Overall, the discussions had the potential of being extremely useful. Each topic was tied to module outcomes and connected with the material examined. However, due to poor facilitation, the discussions were stressful. How-to guides about how to participate in threaded discussions, information about appropriate netiquette, clear expectations about when, where, and how to participate, and an active presence on the forums by lecturers or tutors moderating the forums would improve the discussions and result in everyone benefiting from the sharing of knowledge and experience.
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