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Online Forums and Participation

In the last few days, I have noticed what might be called an "explosion" of activity on the forums for my writing class.

With 23 students, these where the statistics:

Thursday: 56 new posts.
Friday: 246 new posts.
Saturday: 100+ new posts.

After you scroll through the posts, reading them or not, Moodle marks the posts as read. This means that each night's posts were counted separately. I make that distinction because WebCT didn't take the same approach -- some posts I had read would remain marked "new" for several days.

What leads to twelve discussion threads being so active? I'm not sure but I am going to explain what I do. It should be noted that I use online spaces for every class, so students always have access to materials. However, I do not use the online spaces for instruction when a course is not specifically online. The current course is traditional and the forums are mainly to help students discuss assignments.

1) I set "weekly topics" for online (and traditional) courses. These are visible from the first day and I encourage the posting of topic-specific questions to those forums. For example, the forum on "Successful Collaboration" is associated with week six of the course, but was active by week two. The students were not required to post anything specific, but they started sharing stories of good and bad work experiences.

2) I respond to every post the first week. The second week, I respond to about half of the posts. By the fourth or fifth week, I'm only posting when I read something that I cannot resist commenting on -- but I do try to restrain myself. One of my concerns is that students will try to write for a grade. When I enter the conversation, it should be after most of the students have participated.

3) I encourage "professionalism" but when I comment or grade I try to avoid being "picky" about the writing. The students should learn to adjust to the audience and setting of a classroom space, but I don't want them to think grammar and spelling are more important than great ideas. Instead, I want them to recognize that writing well is part of the persuasive process. Most start improving because they see peers adopting business-like writing.

I can't take credit for how active a class is. Some classes are more active online than others, no matter what I do to establish the online participation. Some classes never ask if forums are graded, while others are concerned with nothing but the grading. That's one reason I try to downplay the grading as much as I can.

Not sure if this helps anyone, but I am certainly impressed with the overwhelming use of online forums in a class that is not even designated as a hybrid class. I think the students simply feel more comfortable debating and discussing matters online.

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