During an interview last week with the team behind edX’s Greek Hero class (which will air a week from Friday), I had to sheepishly admit that discussion boards were the element of my MOOC classes to which I’ve dedicated the least time.
For the people managing those discussions, the chance to see input from hundreds or even thousands of students (much of it extremely original and insightful) makes the boards and important (and extremely satisfying) component of the course. But for those of us that hoped the boards would provide an adequate substitute for one of the key components of a traditional classroom experience (regular exchanges with fellow students), discussion forums are a decidedly mixed bag.
I’ve commented before on the consequence of my just-completed Justice class requiring responses to two prompts per week: dozens or even hundreds of new comments flowing into the boards on an almost hourly basis. Which meant that even when I wrote something I was proud of, or commented on someone else’s interesting or provocative posting, by the time I returned to see if a conversation had ensued, whatever I’d posted or replied to had gotten buried in pages upon pages of more recent material.
The consequence of these numbers is that the vast bulk of comments submitted to a discussion board have zero responses, meaning they are part of monologue rather than dialog. And while I chose to treat prompted questions as an assignment to be taken seriously (which meant writing the equivalent of a one-page paper or the type of provocative rejoinder I would have used to mix things up in a live class), so far online discussions have not provided the kind of community I would like to have (especially in an ethics class like Justice where exchanging ideas should be a cornerstone of the learning experience).
All that said, I may have given up on discussion a bit too early (or chosen to push it aside when my courseload got too heavy). But now that my sophomore year is coming to a close with the number of classes that have active discussion boards dwindling to just a few, I’ve decided to give the forums another try, committing to dedicate at least 30-60 minutes a day to this element of my courses.
I also have a new course starting next week (Coursera’s English Common Law) which I’d like to use as an experiment to see if participating in active discussions throughout a class can provide the type of connection to a learning community I’ve not gotten so far.
My suspicion is that creating a genuine cohort of fellow learners that could simulate the type of interaction you would get in a well-managed live discussion group will require going outside discussion board systems built-in MOOCs that are designed to manage input by thousands of people with differing interests and varying degrees of commitment to a class.
But as the experimentalists among us might say: there’s only one way to find out.