Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Running an Online Discussion Board for 400 students: The Teaching Assistant Perspective

I asked the two teaching assistants, Stephanie Craven (an advanced PHD student in classics) and LJ (a 3rd year Medical Student who was volunteering her time) to write a guest post about their experiences with the online discussion board component of my Intro to Rome class.  Stephanie was responsible for moderating and grading while LJ moderated.  The addition of an online discussion board was a new component to the course in Spring 2013; and it was one that, from my perspective, was tremendously valuable for getting the students to think hard about the course material.  It also gave me a great way to see what they were thinking on various topics.  Frequently, I discussed their comments and ideas during class and sometimes expanded on unexpected observations they had made.  At the same time, the tool I used--Piazza--is still in development and is not entirely user friendly for a humanities course.  As well, for a class of this size, where few students knew one another, intense moderation and frequent interventions were required to keep the conversation from lapsing into summaries of the course textbook or lecture.  Stephanie and LJ did an amazing job on that front but, as they explain, it was very time-consuming.
The Piazza portion of Intro to Rome involved two discussion threads per week, each being opened two days before and promptly closed at 9am on the day of class. Students in the 400-person class were expected to post 5 times over the course of the semester, with two of these being before Spring Break. The discussion thread questions were broad (dissertation-sized, even!) and dealt with the material that was due in class after the thread was closed, which generally forced students to read ahead in order to be able to participate. The posts had to be written in clear English, could not be disrespectful in any way, and had to add something to the discussion, either by responding to someone else or by saying something that had not been said before. The net result should be an evolving discussion; it should not look like, nor should it be graded like, a short essay question on an exam.

In order to facilitate this in such a large class, we (Stephanie and LJ) would monitor the thread during the time in which students could post; the idea was to give public feedback for previously written posts, but also to toss open another aspect of the question to another student who had not made it to the board yet. In practice, we tried to make sure that almost every sub-thread ended with a post from us, to either urge students to think more deeply into a subject, or to get them to think about something slightly different when one topic had already been exhausted. This left places where the latecomers could join the conversation; they just had to think a little harder, and maybe look in sources other than the lectures and the textbook.  Here is an example of how our comments interplay with student posts: