Getting class discussions to feel conversational is surprisingly difficult in the online classroom. This is weird, as most of us conduct most of our discussions with others ONLINE! But for some reason, learning management system (LMS) discussion platforms are really strange. They don’t feel like a discussion, they feel like an assignment. In the online courses I have taken, the discussion platform works to make conversations stilted and one sided. No one really responds– they merely parrot back points other students have made and agree. This is not a rich, responsive, collegial classroom environment. This feels sad.
Here is a screenshot of a discussion from an online class I took on teaching online classes:
I am not really interacting with anyone. My post was written to be read by my teacher and is begging them to give me credit. I am not asking any questions or really looking for feedback from my classmates, I am merely displaying my knowledge. (Or lack of it!)
This is boring. And does not build community.
My first attempt to build a rich online class community involved the evil that we know as Facebook. I was not on Facebook when I started developing the class, but the instructional designer I was working with pointed to enthusiastic research on the use of Facebook for online class discussions. I was pretty uncomfortable with it- as I had been really Facebook resistant for a long time. But I thought I would give it a try, as I understood how it could benefit my students and make discussions more fun.
This is what we had:
Students posted photos, shared frustrations, took videos of their kids, AND managed to have a meaningful class discussion. They reported feeling closer to each other and actually feeling like they knew their online classmates. Students claimed it was easier to ask me questions in a more informal environment. Our course embedded consultant was in the group as well, so they had the opportunity to engage with students and connect in many ways.
I loved it. But it was Facebook. It had to end.
Many students were just as reticent as I was to “go to the dark side” and be on Facebook. And I was increasingly uncomfortable asking them to do this. AND I started getting blocked everyday, even though all I was doing was using it to teach a class. (Not dismantle democracy!) I started researching Facebook group alternatives because I knew I didn’t want to go back to the sad LMS discussion board, but I didn’t want to stay on Facebook.
AND then I found GroupMe. And we like each other.
GroupMe is a good substitute. It is more of a group texting platform- but I think it does many of the same things that Facebook does. Students can upload photos, they can share memes, they can use emojis, they can link to websites, they can share video. It allows for a very rich discussion.
I try and post a photo of campus each week- just to show my classes what my world looks like. I want my online students to feel connected to me and connected to EKU. The students usually follow my lead- and they post pictures of what they are up to and what their worlds look like. Last week, we all loved the pictures one of my students posted of a snowy Halloween in Green Bay:
And it allows me to keep students in the loop with class assignments and projects:
I can embed links to websites and documents. I can let them know when feedback on projects is available. I can direct message students for private conversations. I also can invite other people on campus into our discussions– librarians especially. Having embedded librarians in GroupMe discussions, especially in my research classes, is amazing. Students can get lots of help and support just on the discussion board. It is a winning platform!
The only drawback is that GroupMe doesn’t have threaded discussions. Facebook allowed responses to connect directly to posts. On GroupMe, I have to “@” people to show that I am responding to their most recent post. This is a little clunky but is still preferable to the complex morass of politics and data collection that is Facebook.
People take pleasure in discussing just how awful social media and texting are and how detrimental they are to society. I think that this can be true. We are just figuring out how to use these platforms. They are challenging. Our relationships with ourselves and other people are drastically different than they were 20 years ago. There is something to mourn.
That said- there is a positive side. We can connect and learn from people we may never actually meet! I always tell my students how strange our relationship is– we could pass each other on the highway, sit next to each other on an airplane, or even shop at the same grocery store and never know that we actually KNOW each other. That is weird, but kind of beautiful as well.