In the third week of the supporting virtual communities module, we were given a range of scenarios, and asked to outline what our response to the scenario would be. It was a very interesting and engaging activity, and through posting my own thoughts, reading others and reading replies to mine, a lot of issues got teased out during the week.
The first scenario asked us to compose a brief message that we would send to a student who had not yet made a contribution to the discussion board. My response is posted below. Some points I tried to address in my response (which was really guided by Salmon (2004)) were ensuring that the student (“Jack”) was aware of the pace of the module and that he could be left behind as well as providing practical suggestions about how he might contribute, perhaps guided in some way by any interests that Jack may be known to have. I was a little surprised to my peers’ response to this message, which I thought was quite good!! Their feeling was that I was too formal (using “Dear” instead of “Hi”), and was sending this email without being aware of why the student had not contributed.
We are near the end of week 1 and I would encourage you to contribute your response to the 1st week’s task. As you will note from the course outline, there is a lot of material to discuss over the coming weeks, and it is easy to get lost if you don’t regularly contribute.
In contributing your first message, you might approach it by answering one of the following questions:
- Did you agree with Jill when she said…
- Why do you think we need to use a system suggested by Mary?
- Fo you agree with the proposal made by James when he said…?
If you are having technical difficulties, please email me or telephone me, details below.
An interesting discussion ensued, around whether a tutor should be formal, informal, friendly, professional or a mix of all. I concluded that while I would certainly be much more informal in a face-to-face session, my style of writing is naturally more formal. However, a lot of my peers opened their reply with statements like “I know you must be finding it very busy, because I am too” or “I know the technology is difficult, I found that too”. If these statements are not true, I fundamentally disagree with using them – they are in a sense self-deprecating the tutor unnecessarily to put the student at ease. In the overall, very excellent, scenario feedback, our module tutor mentioned that online module requires a lot more thought about pre-planning and support. Therefore if the module workload has been well planned and formal support mechanisms are in place, then there should be no reason why Jack cannot contribute, or at least contact the tutor to request support. Self-deprecating comments, while well intentioned, can result in a lowering of the bar of expectations by giving learners an opt-out (“well the technology is difficult”). This concept was considered (understandably) pessimistic by some of my peers, but I do think for learners that are not highly motivated, a path of least resistance is often more attractive. However, with that in mind, a consideration of the type of lurkers is worthwhile.
Types of Lurkers
Salmon (again!) mentions three types of lurkers:
- free-loader – someone who just reads posts and doesn’t contribute back
- sponge – someone who learns a lot from discussion but is reluctant to give back because they feel they don’t know enough
- lurker with skill/access problems – people who want to reply but can’t
Admittedly my response to Jack probably considered that he was in the first category, with a nod to the fact that he might be in the third. I think the scaffolding questions to stimulate a response do deal with freeloaders/sponges. But after this scenario, I will probably keep my formality a little more in check, especially for learners who I do not know face to face. However, the difficulty here, and one to tease out in future, is the level and nature of boundaries between tutor and student. Again, in the feedback we received on the session, the tutor asks us to consider the nature of the tutor in the discussion board – as a co-student; a guide, offer different approaches, etc. This comes back to the issue of pre-planning the module in advance, and the role of the tutor. I think this can depend on the nature of the module and the students.
“I’ve posted”, where’s my reply?
A second scenario we considered was one where a student, John, had posted a statement complaining that when he posted, people did not reply, and by the time they did the topic had moved on. I didn’t post a formal response to this, as John’s tone annoyed me too much! However, I followed peers responses, and some issues started to get teased out. John could have been having a bad day, could be highly motivated and frustrated that others are not, and so on. But stepping back, it begs the question, what are discussion boards for? If it is a space to consider and develop thoughts with others, it is useful. A great paper by Angeli and Bonk found that most posts to discussion boards in a module they studied where usually a low level of learning or acknowledgement, both on the part of tutor and students. Therefore, if a module is using the discussion board as a place for creation and dialogue, this needs to be formally built into the course design, along with the expectations of students to interact. If it is, and explicitly so, poor old John might get a reply to his posts sooner. A caveat is that John could be posting very long posts, and wanting to know what others think of his opinion, rather than engage with others. In this case, John might be encouraged to shorten posts to one point, or if something is a fluid discussion, a move into synchronous chat may be more appropriate.
Angeli, C., Valanides, N. and Bonk, C.J. (2003) Communication in a web-based conferencing system: the quality of computer-mediated interactions, British Journal of Educational Technology, 34(1), 31 – 43
Salmon, G. (2004) E-Moderating, The Key to Teaching and Learning Online, 2nd Ed., Kogan Press: London.