By Jesse Rappaport
One of the challenges of teaching a hybrid course is, of course, the lack of face-to-face interaction. I normally rely heavily on discussion, student questions, and general classroom “mood” to judge how the class is going, both in terms of the material itself and the students’ comfort level with it. But since my course meets in person only about once a week, time for in-class discussion has seriously diminished. How can I make up for it?
I decided to use Blackboard’s discussion board feature in order to try to replicate a classroom discussion. Although Blackboard is not an open-source tool, it is free of charge for students, and I thought it would be the easiest way to set up an online forum (especially since I’d also be using it to communicate with students.). The idea was that students would post their questions about the material and assignments on the message board, and then respond to their peers. In this way, I thought the discussion board would allow students to help each other with issues they were having, while offering me more insight into their progress.
However, I found that students did not immediately gravitate towards the online forum. A few students participated spontaneously, but most stayed out of the discussion. Anticipating this might be an issue, I had stated in the syllabus that “online participation” would also contribute to the final grade. But even this motivation did not seem sufficient to get students involved.
In some sense, an online discussion is a lower-stakes environment than a classroom one since there isn’t the social pressure of having to speak in public, which many students are not totally comfortable with. But because you are physically isolated from the rest of the class, it can also be a bit harder to really get involved. You cannot rely on immediate visual or verbal feedback from the class, and there’s often the sense that you are just sending your message out into the “ether,” hoping that someone responds.
Because the initial response to the Blackboard discussion was lackluster, I decided to incentivize participation by occasionally making it part of the homework to contribute to the discussion board, with extra credit awarded to those who offered answers to other students’ questions. This change increased the level of participation dramatically.
As with classroom discussions, then, it’s essential to structure online interactions, rather than expect them to simply happen spontaneously. And once students grows more comfortable with the experience, they may feel more free to participate in the future. That has been borne out by my students, who are now helping each other with their questions as they prepare for an upcoming exam.
At the same time, I’ve learned that you shouldn’t expect a Blackboard discussion board to replicate a real-life classroom experience. As David Backer writes for Hybrid Pedagogy, “being disappointed with online discussions because they are not like IRL discussions is like being disappointed with apples because they are not oranges.” But in a hybrid course, a discussion board is still a useful tool to help compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction and build community among the students.
In my case, I opted to stick with Blackboard because it was already set up and familiar to the students, and I had already decided to use github.com as my main course page. More adventurous instructors who would like to pursue an open-source alternative to Blackboard for online discussion (and know how to run a server) might check out the Discourse, Flarum, or phpBB. And of course, those looking for a bloggier option could always consider WordPress; although it doesn’t include a “discussion board,” per se, it can provide a lively platform for online discussion—as CUNY instructors can widely attest.
Jesse Rappaport is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at the Graduate Center and a Contributing Writer for Visible Pedagogy.