I have woefully neglected this blog this year, for good reasons… I started a new full time job (more about that in a later post) and I started it in the middle of a term when I was working as an adjunct for four (!!) online courses. This was a great idea when I controlled my own time… a bit crazy in these last few weeks.

But oh, has it been worth it! After engaging in the Connected Courses MOOC last fall, I designed several of the courses with deeper learner-centered techniques. The students have completely blown me away. Although clearly doubtful at the start, they stepped up to the plate and ENGAGED in their own learning. They surprised themselves in the process, I think – learning as much about their own agency as learners as they did about the topic at hand. I could not be more thrilled.

Often, people who facilitate online learning struggle to get people to make the required “one post plus two comments” each week. I actually required three or four in these classes, and I had no trouble getting that and more. The students wrote paragraphs, and they kept the discussion from the prior week going well into the next week. Yes, it was sometimes hard for me to keep up (I read every post and every comment, and I comment extensively myself), but as a result I learned so much from them. Our lively discussions about learning strategy, how to overcome barriers, emerging tools and techniques, and approaches to our own learning were inspirational.

This isn’t meant to be a brag, so much as an introduction… I thought I could share with you the techniques I tried in case you may find them helpful in your own work. These can work both in structured courses and in online communities, I think. Please feel free to use them and morph them as you will.

The 411*

Instead of posing questions for the discussion boards, I asked students to read the assigned materials and post 4 key points they wanted to remember, 1 way they would apply what they learned to practice, and 1 question to get the discussion started on the discussion board. It was fun to see what they picked out (and important to learn how they sometimes misconstrued concepts). Each student, then, could steer the online conversation towards areas that were of personal interest. Because they asked the questions, they are more likely to engage in ongoing discussion, and to support their peers by answering their questions.

A few things to note:

> When everyone is required to post a 411, that’s A LOT of posts, and they tend to be long. I was willing to live with that “problem” in favor of making sure every student took the time to lay out their learning from the readings.

> Students get overwhelmed by that many posts. I broke the class into two discussion boards so students could manage their discussion board engagement more easily, but I still read them all (and maybe they did, too; they were able to read both discussion boards and contribute in either if they wanted).

> I actively engage in the discussion boards myself, making 10 or more comments every week. In these comments, I am adding my perspective, sharing additional material related to their reflections, and occasionally gently redirecting if I thought they had misinterpreted one aspect of the readings. For example, I had one quote from an article “go viral” (a number of students picked up on it) and I needed to go into depth about the study that was quoted and explain it didn’t say what they thought it did (or, interestingly, what the author of the article thought it did).

Learner Contributions

One way to earn points in several of the courses was to post a “contribution” – to bring in another article, perspective, case, news story, etc. that was on topic and that extended the conversation in some way. I like this approach, too, and learned a few things:

> In one course, I scaffolded the activity by giving some specific options for each and every topic. Unnecessary. It would have been sufficient to give a broad description of what is possible across the board along with some guiding parameters (e.g. date range, types of sources).

> I need to make more explicit the expectation that these posts should contain the student’s own commentary on the piece as well as the link or PDF. As well, I would also have liked to see them more often link their additional material to the readings that were shared as foundation.

> In encouraging students to reference the reading material, I don’t require that it be formally referenced – more casual references are allowed. I’ve found that when academic citations are required, students tend to go into academic voice, and shy away from multiple comments. I would prefer a number of conversational comments rather than a few heavily cited ones.

> I required each student to post seven contributions over the span of a 14 week term, and the math meant we’d have about 7 posts per week. That worked out nicely without controlling it at all. Some weeks, we had fewer starter posts. I had a secret plan to add my own starters if we wound up with two few in a given week, but I never felt I really needed to implement it – they were off and running.

> In the beginning of the term, I wasn’t asking anyone to make explicit comments about the foundational readings. A student suggested that she missed that, and I allowed that as a “contribution” in the second half of the term. I might, in the future, get one or two students to volunteer to write a summary post each week just to be sure that the foundational readings are discussed as well.

Have you ever had students ask you to provide a PDF of the discussion boards? Two of these classes asked for that, which I find remarkable. We found a way to do that in one course (on Canvas) by using Google Chrome to “print to PDF.” In the other course, there doesn’t seem to be any way to do it without copying and pasting. In the future, I will want to be sure we find ways to capture and download discussion boards so students can refer back to these rich discussions again and again. (LMS designers, please take note!)

So this term has been the best of times. The student reflections, all coming out this week, have made me clap and cheer to myself as the students describe what they are taking away from the term. I have truly learned from them; their perspectives are so different from mine – different industries, different cultures (a number of international students), different roles, and different career aspirations. The students have also been wonderfully complimentary about the designs and my active engagement in the discussions, and that is always nice to hear.

The only reason the last few weeks have been “the worst” is the minor glitch of essentially having two full time jobs at the same time. I have been missing out on spring (and sleep) since all the final projects have come in the last several weeks. But on balance, worth every moment.

Please share any additional ideas you have… I’m always happy to learn new techniques!


*411 – In the US, 4-1-1 is the number people can dial on their phones to obtain directory listings, and it has become shorthand for “information.”

Connected Courses – for more on the design process for my e-collaboration course, see the Connected Courses posts from my “Out Loud Learning” blog (which will be folded into this one from this point forward).