Using E-Mail, Blogs, Bulletin Boards

Many schools have adopted WebCT, Blackboard, or some other platform for online course materials. Among their many features those that facilitate discussion may prove the most useful. We all want our students to engage with the materials we assign in class and out. Getting them to submit comments can prove a very powerful way to accomplish this. But as with so much about the new media, electronic conversation tools do not come with instructions about how to use them most effectively. Some faculty, for example, insist that students read each other’s postings. This can spark lively discussions, but it is more likely to generate a series of comments on the order of “I agree with Sally.” Not only does this contribute nothing, it also may be that what Sally wrote is not especially perceptive. This approach also ignores a basic feature of bulletin boards and related software. They are asynchronous. As a result, some students delay responding until the last minute. That way, they correctly reason, others will have done all the work. They can cut and paste their way to an acceptable performance. Other teachers specify that students submit a set number of postings, say six, over the course of the semester. The hope is that they will pick topics that especially interest them and/or ones about which they believe they have something particularly interesting to say. This does happen, sometimes. What tends to happen more often is that students procrastinate. They have a lab report to get done or a Spanish quiz or their favorite sitcom is about to start or a friend suggests they get a beer. So they put off posting. This means that early on in the course the bulletin board or blog will be relatively inactive, and that the instructor will become a nag who constantly reminds the class of deadlines for posting. This does not make for a rich educational environment. It makes for coping. Students possess a rich and growing set of coping skills, which they employ to forestall the need to learn. Think of all the people who passed French or Spanish in high school and college and yet remain monolingual. Just as many passed history courses. We do not wish to add to the number.

Our primary goal should not be to foster student communication with each other. It should be (gasp!) to foster communication with us. The simplest way to do this is to use e-mail. Have students send you brief comments or questions before a class discussion. Then you can post some of them to the bulletin board or, if you prefer, onto a web page. There are compelling advantages, beginning with the fact that nobody gets to agree with Sally unless she actually writes something you consider worthwhile. Serious students dislike having to read everyone else’s posts because many waste their time. In addition, you sent the standards for student work, not by hectoring but by putting good work on display. Many students do not know what good questions or comments look like. They do not know how detailed they should make their responses. You can show them and, at the same time, make your own expectations clear. We routinely underestimate the quality of work our students can do in our courses because we underestimate the level of effort they are willing to expend. We know that, given half a chance, many will cope rather than struggle through challenging assignments. We are less likely to appreciate how many will rise to the occasion.

Screening student responses before a discussion makes for a much better class. The terrible silences, during which students avoid eye contact and shift restlessly in their chairs, disappear. You simply call on a student. “Sally,” you say as you project her notes, “you made a really interesting comment.” “Should I just read it?” she may ask, especially early in the semester. First-year students do not know what a college-level discussion is like. I always respond in the affirmative. So Sally reads. And I ask her a question, and she answers. Within two weeks, no one reads. You shape the class discussion by moving from one student response to another. You only call on students who have something positive to contribute. This is vital. It signals to the class that you are not interested in participation for its own sake. It signals that you take their work seriously. And it allows them to relax. If you ask them to say something, it is because you think they have something to say.

E-mail and bulletin boards make it much more feasible to organize such discussions. Suppose I had given a quiz on which I asked: Briefly discuss what Barzun means by mind-and-heart? and then handed the quizzes back at the start of  the next class. I would have seen from the responses the problems students had with the concept. What kind of discussion would ensue? Students would be listening for me to give the correct answer, provided they expected me to ask the question again on a test. If they did not, many would tune me out. Whatever Barzun meant, it was too late to do them any good. Getting a discussion going would be almost impossible.

Using e-mail and other communication software in this fashion is labor intensive. It takes an hour to read and answer fifty e-mails. By answer, I mean a comment like “interesting” or “perfunctory.” Sometimes I write fairly elaborate responses. They significantly increase the amount of time I spend. Cutting and pasting the best comments takes another twenty minutes. And this is in addition to the other preparation I do for class. Blackboard and WebCT market their products, in part, by claiming how they can save time. And the claim is legitimate as far as “course management” features are concerned. Each will keep attendance data and grades, for example. Each will allow individual students to check their grades online. Each will keep track of which students made what number of posts. But such conveniences aside, new media require more work from you. You can avoid the extra work of course. You can adopt the practices described at the beginning of this chapter. You will have a lot of company. Just remember, they do not work very well.