An oldie, but a goodie

Another of our FTI 2012 attendees, Dr. Adam Mendelsohn, shares how he decided to  incorporate technology after the FTI.

In the semester following the FTI, I spent some time mulling how to incorporate technology into my teaching. I’ve long used digital slide presentations (steering clear of the constricting hand of PowerPoint) and webtools (such as Mapping America) alongside more traditional materials like printed handouts . Even here, however, I remain cautious. Dimming the lights in the classroom may signal an opportunity to switch off mentally, or turn on Facebook. I continue to see computer use in the classroom by students as a source of distraction for themselves and others. How then to use technology in a new way that aids me as a teacher and provides educational benefit to my students? How to persuade them that technology is not about finding shortcuts that will enable them to do less work (primarily less reading!) but instead about them doing more work more efficiently? And how to use technology to encourage students to think of themselves as part of an intellectual community?

I have previously experimented with students working on non-traditional projects (such as researching, designing, and then producing online historical walking tours). Such ideas were less practical this past year since much of my teaching involved large survey courses. So instead I chose to experiment with a technology that is far from flashy, but when used right can work as a sophisticated teaching tool. While I have previously set up restricted Facebook pages for my classes, I have found them problematic in two ways. Firstly, since students associate Facebook with their social lives, they seem reluctant to take it seriously as a teaching tool. Secondly, although I invited all students to join these Facebook groups, participation was limited to those who had Facebook accounts (astonishingly not all of them did). Given the limitations of the system, none could make anonymous postings, a particularly useful option for freshmen who are often still lacking in confidence.

So instead of Facebook, I fell back on the Discussion tool on OAKS, and used it in a very directed way. I have found that students are most likely to seek me out during my office hours in the weeks before assignments are due. Although I’m delighted by the onrush of students, I’m available at times that are not convenient to everyone, and more importantly, I find that students almost invariably come with the same questions and seeking the same clarifications. While I might send out an email to my entire class clarifying common issues that crop up again and again in my meetings with students, email seems like a crude way of doing so. I am also reluctant to provide too much prompting, spoon-feeding them ideas and information that they themselves should come up with.

So roughly 10 days before a large paper was due, I created a series of online forums on OAKS that broached several broad issues relating to the assignment. These forums ranged in purpose from the practical (what sources should I be looking for? What style of footnoting should I use? etc), to the informational (questions were raised by the assignment itself), and the compositional (how should I structure the paper?).  I posed several questions in each forum, but encouraged students to ask and answer questions themselves. I also provided a handful of tips (websites to avoid, where to begin looking for sources etc) that I would have provided to those students who came to my office hours, but would not have been available to the broader class.

Although at first students were slow to participate, by the weekend before the paper was due, discussion had become lively. It did so for several reasons. Firstly, students came to realize that I was an active participant in discussion. If they wanted an answer to a question or needed guidance, the forums were a handy place to start. Instead of having to come to my office hours, or write me an email, they could help themselves and others by posting their question online. I responded to postings on the forums several times a day. This was more demanding of my time than waiting for students to stop by my office. And it took some care and thought on my part. I tried to ensure that my answers to questions  provided enough guidance and encouragement, but not so much as to save them from having to think and read on their own; gently pushing them in the right direction without narrowing the answers that they themselves might come to.

The second and more important reason why this technology is worth incorporating more routinely into my teaching is that after several days of posting to the discussion forum, I could begin to lighten my own online footprint. A genuine online classroom community had come into being. Instead of relying on my input and direction – waiting for me to answer their questions — students began to offer each other advice and suggestions, and pose questions for others to answer. I only (gently) stepped in when this advice was misleading or erroneous. This happened relatively rarely; instead some students assumed the role of fact checkers and editors, pointing out earlier discussion in the forums that contradicted false claims. I assume that they adopted these roles for several reasons. Some might have hoped to impress me or their peers. Others may be drawn to teaching (or editing). Some may have been motivated by altruism or a sense of kinship and espirit de corps with their classmates.

Over the time that the discussion was active, I and my students posted 134 messages. From the available statistics, it’s clear that students used the discussion in variety of ways.  Some read everything or almost everything that was posted. Others read more selectively, asking an occasional question, and just read the answers to it. A handful posed no questions and offered no answers, but followed the discussion closely, clearly using it as a resource when preparing their papers. One student posed two questions, but did not read the answers to them. More than a third of the class did not participate at all. Ironically these were on average the weakest (and perhaps least engaged) students in the class, those who might have benefited most from this exercise.  A little under a quarter of the students in the class used the discussion forums most heavily.  Three students read every single of the 134 messages posted; they were among a group of ten students who participated most actively.

There is some irony in my finding greatest value in a somewhat conservative and limited technology like online discussion forums, something that can be traced to the earliest days of the internet. This, however, will be a technology that I plan to use again in future years. The challenge will be to reach and engage those students who are least inclined to participate, and, paradoxically, could benefit most from the input of their peers.  Here I may have to explore incentives, either making participation mandatory (which has significant downsides, likely discouraging those who voluntarily took on the role of editors and fact checkers from performing this role), or encouraging them by supplying extra credit (a weak incentive for disengaged students). Suggestions welcome!

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