Discussing Discussions

The first order of business when talking about discussion forums in online classes is to ask, what do we want a discussion to accomplish?

Discussing Discussions

On July 24, 2017, I had the opportunity to work with a group of instructors in an online environment. The subject for our discussion was “the discussion forum,” especially as it relates to how discussion is handled inside a learning management system like Canvas. The following is a compilation of some of my thoughts. This post was originally published on the blog of the Office of Digital Learning at Middlebury College.

The first order of business when talking about discussion forums in online classes is to ask, what do we want a discussion to accomplish? When I begin any design process, in keeping with my approach that teaching and learning are narrative in nature, I want to know first and foremost what the end of the story is. What do we want students to walk away with when the course is over? And here I'm not thinking about learning objectives, but rather about the ideas, the questions, the warm feeling, or the wild imaginings that will be left over.

Discussions forums, that component often burdened with being "the classroom" in an LMS, play a central role in how we grow those ideas, questions, and wild imaginings. Or, if our pedagogy rests upon learning objectives and outcomes, the discussion forum will bear that burden instead.

The best practices associated with discussions ask both teachers and students to abide by a formula for post-and-response—most famously, the "post once, reply twice" rule. The contrivance of "discussion" in this way is built to create measurable participation. And when we rebel against making quantifiable what's meant to be the equivalent of in-class dialogue, we add to "post once, reply twice" an array of rubrics and expectations.

  • "Make substantive comments."
  • "Respond with at least two new ideas."
  • "Don't just say you like what someone said."
  • "Your response should be at least one paragraph long."

All of which proceed from the original student post which can have as many or more expectations upon it.

In short, "discussion" becomes "short essay." And once dialogue has become serial monologue, we find we can heap even more upon it. Proper citation. Refer to this week's readings. Demonstrate understanding of the main ideas from the lecture. Until each discussion post is actually the equivalent of a student presentation. Every week.

Bloom's Taxonomy

The interesting thing about how discussions have been manhandled by best practices is that, when we follow those practices, we tend to reduce discussion to its lowest possible form. In too many cases, discussions are how we monitor that students are participating—and by participating, we often mean "doing the reading." Discussion forums become the way we call on students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding. They become the scene from too many movies when a student looking out the window is asked to answer a question about last night's homework.

Discussions as they are prescribed by best practices of instructional design only actually appeal to the lowest levels Bloom's Taxonomy. According to Wikipedia,

Bloom’s taxonomy is a set of three hierarchical models used to classify educational learning objectives into levels of complexity and specificity. The three lists cover the learning objectives in cognitive, affective and sensory domains. The cognitive domain list has been the primary focus of most traditional education and is frequently used to structure curriculum learning objectives, assessments and activities.

The lowest levels of the taxonomy are "Remember" and "Understand", and when applied to learning objectives—or instructions for a discussion post—we can expect to see keywords like:

  • Recognize
  • Recall
  • Paraphrase
  • Represent
  • Categorize
  • Generalize
  • Extrapolate
  • Compare
  • Contrast
  • Explain

Asking students to perform these behaviors is asking them to repeat what they've read and heard. These are behaviors firmly grounded in what Freire called "the banking model" of education. It's like telling a child not to run in the house and then asking them to repeat back what you've said.

Is that a discussion? Is that what we want discussion to be?

Trust and Risk

To accomplish more with discussion requires that we let go of our need to monitor students' study habits. This means confronting our learned (and in some cases, natural) desire to "helicopter parent" learners in our classrooms. This confrontation doesn't just need to happen online, either, it is a temptation for all teachers. Most of us received teaching that involved heavy monitoring—even graded lessons on how to study, for example in writing classrooms when each stage of a research project, from ideation to bibliography to draft, is graded as though each step was itself a thing.

Teaching this way isn't handholding or guidance or even scaffolding. Teaching this way demonstrates a lack of trust in learners' willingness and ability to learn. When we do it, we don't think of it that way—we think of it as helpful, even as necessary to the learning process. Walk them through each step of baking a cake before giving them the recipe and the goods and letting them try their hand. And part of that is okay. It shows concern, a desire to nurture and help learners succeed. But when we grade each step, when we make them tell us they folded in the eggs and sifted the flour before we've even tasted the cake, we are succumbing to a lack of trust.

Chris Friend and I wrote that:

If we give students the freedom to choose their own path, they might choose poorly or make mistakes on our watch. But we must be willing to allow them the challenge of this authority, the dignity of this risk, and the opportunity to err and learn from their mistakes. They learn and gain expertise through experimentation...
The words experience and expert both come from the Latin word experiri meaning “to try”. If we want our students to become experts, we have an obligation to give them the opportunity to try things, without the real danger that otherwise exists outside a classroom environment. Our students must have the chance — and the compulsion — to experiment in their thinking and with their work.

What's asked of teachers is trust. And there is no better place to evidence that trust than in discussion forums.

Student Voices are the Voices We Need

Thomas P. Kasulis writes in “Questioning”: "A discussion is not only the process of collectively examining a set of issues; it is also the persons involved in that task." In other words, we cannot think about a discussion without also—and perhaps first—thinking about the voices that will arise in that discussion (or, and just as importantly, the voices that might be silenced).

In other words, a discussion is not meant to reveal that someone else knows what we already know or already told them; a discussion is meant to generate knowledge, wisdom, and insight rather than just reflect it back.

Students today have a great deal to say. They live in a world fraught with difficult, oppressive politics, environmental disaster, questions of identity, and more. They are observers and readers of this world every day. Chris Gilliard reminds us that, "Many of our students are ready to offer the voices that we need." And so their classrooms should be a place where they can bring their observations, insights, and knowledge about their world to bear upon their study... Not a place where they are asked to show their work.

Image by Geran de Klerk