Next Semester: A Really Good Discussion Board Plan!

December 30, 2010

computer classroomHere it is about three weeks away from our new semester starting and I’m planning a new, revised, and totally better online discussion board for my online classes. Never mind that I really don’t know our new Blackboard 9 system that well yet or that I’ll be teaching an online class that I haven’t taught in a couple of years – I mean I’ve got three weeks!

I’ve been a big supporter of online discussion boards for a long time so I was intrigued by an article in a recent Faculty Focus Special Report. The article by Rob Kelly was titled “A Plan for Effective Discussion Boards.” I began to read, assuming I would find my discussion board strategies validated. About half-way through I came across a paragraph that began “Too often, however, instructors simply ask students to state their independent thinking on a subject and perhaps comment on two classmates’ postings.” Whoops – that’s a big part of what I typically do; perhaps I’m not on the cutting edge of best practices after all! Not that my approach is a bad or ineffective one, but the article pointed out a number of ways to make a more effective discussion board.

One of the tips in the article was that the instructor should have an active presence on the discussion board. This may strike some as obvious but I’ve heard arguments from colleagues that the instructor should be as unobtrusive as possible: since we probably won’t post a response to every student, every time, this reasoning goes, it’s better not to post at all because responding to just some students’ posts may make the others feel as though their posts aren’t worthy of the instructor’s response. Some instructor’s handle this dilemma by posting a summary at the end of the week’s discussion board period. While I do like the summary idea, I think a good way to acknowledge to students that you will not be replying to every student post is to say you plan to choose a few representative posts to respond to each week (or module).

What I most liked about the article were the recommendations by Richard Paul that are likely to engage students at a deeper level of thinking. Paul’s six recommendations as contained in Kelly’s article are the following.

Conceptual clarification questions – questions that get students to think about concepts behind their arguments, for example, Why are you saying that? What exactly does this mean? How does this relate to what we have been talking about? Can you give me an example?

Probing assumptions – questions that get students to think about the beliefs that they base their arguments on, for example, What else could we assume? How did you choose those assumptions? How can you verify or disprove that assumption? What would happen if . . . ?

Probing rationale, reasons, and evidence – questions that get students to think about the support for their arguments, for example, Why is that happening? How do you know this? Can you give me an example? What do you think causes . . .? On what authority are you basing your argument?

Questioning viewpoints and perspectives – questions that get students to consider other viewpoints, for example, What are some alternate ways of looking at this? Who benefits from this? How are x and y similar?

Probe implications and consequences – questions that get students to think about the [sic] what follows from their arguments, for example, Then what would happen? What are the consequences of that assumption?

Questions about the question – questions that turn the question in on itself, for example, What was the point of asking that question? Why do you think I asked this question?

While it may not be practical for us to post responses to every student post, posting the sort of Socratic questions listed above to a representative group of student discussion board posts will encourage everyone to think more critically.

And speaking of grading rubrics . . . ok, I’ll save that for another day!

Resources

Kelly, R. (nd). A plan for effective discussion boards, in a Faculty Focus Special Report

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Online Cheating

April 6, 2010

With final exams coming up soon I want to return to a topic that virtually all online instructors struggle with: how to provide fair, convenient, comprehensive tests to online students.

Academic cheating has always existed of course and some reports suggest that the extent and scope of the problem has increased over the last few decades. Kitahura and Westfall (2007) provide these data:

  • a 1999 survey – over 75% of college students “admitted to some form of cheating;”
  • a 2002 survey – 74% of high school students admitted to cheating;
  • a 2003 national survey – 41% of students said plagiarism occurred “often” or “very often.”

Online instructors are particularly sensitive to the issue of academic cheating as, by its very nature, distance education implies less control and physical contact with students. Take, for example, the fact that it is not uncommon for friends or family members to register for the same online course. Does this increase the likelihood of cheating? Not necessarily but it does make it more convenient if the students were so inclined.

So, given that cheating is a long-standing reality, and that it is more difficult to detect in an online course, what can an online instructor do to increase academic honesty? Well, actually, quite a lot.

Here are some practical measures online instructors have taken to reduce cheating.

  • Write a personal letter to your students about the topic (see link to example letter below)
  • Explain to your students exactly what plagiarism and academic dishonesty are
  • Include a statement in your syllabus of your institution’s academic honesty policy and your expectations of your students
  • Require all tests to be taken on campus in a proctored environment
  • Require all tests to be proctored by an authorized supervisor (e.g. Company Commander for soldiers in Iraq)
  • Require some tests to be taken in a proctored environment while some can be taken online
  • Provide many small assessments of learning that are given many times throughout the course
  • If you use the Blackboard testing system there are a number of things you can do such as: specify a certain time limit for tests; create tests using the Test Manager’s “random block” tool in which students are given equivalent but different test questions; select the “one at a time” option so that students answer one question before seeing the next one; use the “no print” code that prevents students from printing tests

secureexamSome institutions are exploring innovative uses of technology to ensure honesty. Troy University, for instance, has implemented the Securexam Remote Proctor to reduce cheating on online exams. The device consists of a video camera with a 360 degree field of view and an omnidirectional microphone. It has a fingerprint sensor in the base of the unit and connects to a USB port on the student’s computer. It is, in essence, like having a proctor in the room with the student no matter where he or she is. The results are still out on the success of this approach but it may well strike some as overkill. My preference is more toward educating the student about academic honesty and plagiarism and then providing numerous assessment options at weekly intervals throughout the term. I would be very interested in hearing your views on this issue.

Promoting Academic Integrity in Online Distance Learning Courses
Letter To My Students


Getting To Know Students

January 19, 2010

Many professors make an effort to get to know their students Рat least as many of them as they can. Educational research supports this effort as many studies have found that developing a personal connection with the course instructor is more influential to student success than a class with great content but a remote or unapproachable instructor. And when students rave about a wonderful class they took, they are almost always talking about the instructor more than the content.

While many techniques exist to help on-campus instructors get to know their students, it is a little more difficult with online students. One of the Blackboard tools I have found to be helpful is the student homepage. Student homepages allow students to introduce themselves, comment on their academic pursuits, hobbies, and so on. They can upload a photo and personalize the page by adding favorite web sites. Other students can visit the student homepages and discover common interests they share with their classmates, develop friendships, form study groups, or even agree to carpool to on-campus classes. I ask students – in both my online and on-campus classes – to develop their student homepages as it allows me to review them and even print them for a class record. It is an easy way for me to find out things about my students that I probably wouldn’t discover otherwise.

See the following “How-To” video if this idea interests you.

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Student Homepages in Blackboard

January 19, 2010

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