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Information Technology Services (ITS) recently introduced capabilities for online academic forums, more familiarly known as bulletin boards or online discussion groups. The hope is that professors can continue class discussions online using the Internet before and after students have left the classroom. "The idea of the forum is to ask a focused question about the reading and to allow free-form debate among the students," Dana Professor of Poetry Ira Sadoff explained in an Information Technology Services newsletter this fall.
"Students take a posed question or statement and run with it for a couple of paragraphs," he said. An example might be "in poems x, y and z, Emily Dickinson debates or interrogates questions of desire and autonomy. What are the pleasures and pains of each in these poems?"
What ensues is a virtual classroom discussion that runs for a couple of days or over the weekend, but with an entirely different dynamic. Students argue, form alliances and amplify one another's comments, but they do it all through a keyboard, and participants read the postings as sequential blocks of text.
The discussions, which are moderated by the professor or the professor's designee, can branch into various threads, and students can follow any of the threads of the online conversation. The system is set up so students also can receive the sequential postings automatically as e-mail messages. Access to the forums is controlled by passwords, so only class members can participate.
Sadoff, who credits colleague Karen Karbiener (English) for the bulletin-board suggestion, said one payoff is that students come to class with a larger stake in the discussion, and his experience is that they participate more actively.
Perhaps most valuable is the way that online forums neutralize some of the personality dynamics of face-to-face classroom discussions. In the virtual environment, shyer students sometimes find their voices and dispute the views and opinions of students who may be more vocal in the class.
"In some classes I ask a question each week; in other classes I might ask questions when a particularly challenging essay or long poem will be discussed," Sadoff said. He assesses online discussion the same way he considers class participation--individual comments aren't graded, but active participation does get factored into the grading.
Sadoff reports that the forums, easily accessible and easy to use, are integral parts of a writing-intensive literature course.
"I think of it as a conduit, a way to make learning more reciprocal, to help students talk to each other, to ritualize the act of writing and thinking so students become invested in articulating a position or questions about the material," he said. "I always use the forums to get students thinking about shaping our next discussion, so I can look at the forum and find out what they're thinking, where they're confused, what engages or loses them. This kind of project makes for more work, requires a capacity to think on your feet more than we do traditionally, but class discussions are more rewarding and it seems in most classes to make students feel more like a community of learners."--Gerry Boyle '78
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