Memo on computer-mediated teaching/learning

 

 

 

Concerning: Thoughts on using *Forum in teaching.

[*Forum was a fairly rigid conferencing program]

Date: April/10/1990

I have just finished the fourth course in which I have used *Forum. The first was Educ 823, 1988-3, the second was Educ 911 in 1989-1, the third was Educ 901, 1989-3, and the third was Educ 486 (Special Topics: Imagination in Teaching and Learning), 1990-1. The first use began part way through the course on the suggestion of one of the students, who created the conference in *Forum. It was used by only about five out of a class of 28, and served mainly just to suggest readings or discuss items of more general class interest. It was quite unstructured so I won't mention it further, except to note that its limited usefulness seemed to be connected not just to the few students using it but also to its unstructuredness. The second class had only 5 Ph.D. students in it, one of whom never managed to get into the system, and another of whom seemed to have such difficulties that participation was rare. The value of *Forum in this course was marginal. In part due to the unstructured preparations I had made, and in part due to the lack of what is clearly a necessary "critical mass" - a point to which I will return.

The use of *Forum in Educ 901 was, I think, a valuable addition to teaching the course. Most, if not all, of the students agreed that it was a positive feature of the course. This success was due in significant part to talks with David Porter and David Bell, and to the one-day workshop on using *Forum which the faculty hosted (at which the two Davids spoke), and also to the recommendations made by Scott Sayer, who, as a part of a Directed Readings course, studied what elements seemed to contribute to the success and failure of various *Forum conferences. The feature that became clear was the necessity of structuring in some detail the Conference Discussions in *Forum prior to the class beginning.

So, when students first entered Conference Educ901 they were greeted by the following set of prepared titles. (I have added the number of comments from students and me that were entered under each discussion title. These varied in length considerably, from the one line "Oh, I see" to substantial essays. The print-out covers 129 pp.) The titles were:

 

15995 Bibliographic (26 entries during the course)

15996 Assignments (2 entries)

15997 Schedule (1 entry)

15998 Mega-chat (67 entries)

15999 Plato, Justice, the State and the Individual (31 entries)

16000 Plato, Reality, Reason, and Illusion (15 entries)

16005 Creator and Creature: God and Medieval education (17 entries)

16006 John Locke and the birth of Empiricism (15 entries)

16007 Nature and Nurture: the wild boy of Aveyron (5 entries)

16008 Rousseau and the guidance of nature (16 entries)

16009 Romance and Industrial Workers (3 entries)

16010 Dewey, Democracy, and Education (5 entries)

16011 Twentieth century public education (4 entries)

16012 Debate #1: Socializing/Educating (35 entries)

16013 Debate #2: Gains/Losses (22 entries)

16014 Debate #3: Society, Knowledge, Psyche (6 entries)

16321 Jo-Ann (3 entries)

16322 Debbie (6 entries)

16323 David (0 entries)

16324 Sandra (3 entries)

16325 Aldona (14 entries)

16326 Irene (5 entries)

16327 Loraine (6 entries)

16328 Linda (3 entries)

16329 Val (15 entries)

16330 Judy (2 entries)

16331 Lorne (6 entries)

16332 Ruth (3 entries)

16379 Sol (6 entries)

16524 The dialectic (16 entries)

16622 Presuppositions (10 entries)

 

As students first entered any of the discussions, they were greeted by a , usually, quite brief introduction, indicating what that discussion was designed for. Topics 15999 to 16011 were directed to the main readings of the course. I encouraged the students to enter anything they found useful in the way of articles and books in "Bibliographic." This was well used. The "Assignments" discussion was little used, I suspect, because the first question generated some confusion, and also we discussed them in class in some detail. Similarly "Schedule" simply listed the readings required for particular dates, and called for no discussion. Also, of course, students had that information on a handout anyway.

Mega-chat was to be about anything to do with the course in general, accessibility of readings, problems with the technology, and some discussion of substantive issues. In a couple of cases these became sufficiently engaged that I set up two additional Discussions to deal with them separately (16524 and 16622).

The next three Discussions - Debates #1, #2, and #3 - addressed issues that arose again and again during the readings. Clearly the first two were more engaging than the last.

There were 11 active participants in the class (one took no part in *Forum except as a reader, and one had persistent problems accessing the system). I created a Discussion for each of them, inviting them to use it to describe their thoughts about their papers, and ask for suggestions and help. Clearly some students found this rather hard to do, while some found it useful and felt confident enough to do their thinking in public, as it were.

Educ 901 is a 5 hour Ph.D. seminar. I told the class that we would meet for 4 hours and we would spend 1 hour "discussing" via *Forum. This seemed to work well for a while, but after about a month the students asked that the class meetings revert to 5 hours in order that we might cover the material adequately. The use of *Forum while they were reading during the week seemed to serve as a stimulus to discussion once we met in class. Obviously this may have been a result of a particularly bright and lively group of students, but it seems undeniable that the discussions in *Forum contributed something. Certainly class discussions tended to be energetic, and certainly issues raised in *Forum were revisited frequently in class.

I made participation in *Forum a requirement of the course. This seemed not unreasonable with Ph.D. students as nearly all of them have computers, (though one or two had to buy modems - but their cost now is within the range of the more expensive text-books), and there are many machines on campus which those without computers at home could use. I tried quite hard to encourage students to use the discussions very informally, to put down whatever they were thinking about while reading. Only a few seemed happy to do this. A number of students clearly satisfied the requirement by entering their single, prepared, comment each week. Some, however, made multiple entries, and returned to topics time and again, and a few good discussions kept going for many weeks. After about 8 weeks I was asked whether I was grading their contributions to *Forum. I said that I wasn't, but rather saw it like the class discussion as an integral part of our interaction over the chosen texts of the course. After that, one or two students stopped participating, and the frequency of comments in general declined. This was also the time at which work on their final papers was becoming more pressing. It is clear, however, that even at the Ph.D. level the assumption that participation was or was not contributing to their grade had a significant effect on a number of students. Perhaps I should have been more sensitive to this. I suppose a requirement that is not graded is an anomaly in their experience.

As a supplement to a seminar *Forum seems to have considerable value. I have taught Educ 901 a number of times, and I thought the density of discussion in this class, the amount of extra reading many students did, the amount of pre-class thought, the general engagement of the students, and my sense of satisfaction were all in some degree improved by the use of *Forum. More obviously, within *Forum there were a number of good discussions, questions answered, issues explored, in ways that I doubt would have been possible in class. It did, however, add significantly to the time I spent teaching the course: I would guess as much as one half as much again as regular class-based teaching.

But this was really just a preliminary to Educ 486 in 1990-1, which was to be taught entirely via computer. The first surprise, to me, was the small enrollment. I feared being swamped with student's comments and questions, and asked the Director of Undergraduate Programs if we could limit enrollment to 20. He agreed. Only 13 enrolled, with one, rather active, auditor.

Preparation for this course was very time consuming, much more so than for the usual on-campus course. I felt that I had to prepare everything in advance and in detail. Thus November and December were spent busily preparing topics and entering sets of directing questions onto *Forum: more detailed preparations than I normally make for on-campus courses. (All leading to a rather churlish response to the Dean in a faculty meeting when he used me as an example of the undesirable practice of using SSHRC grants to buy release time from teaching. I felt at that point that I was putting in more time for this one course than I typically do for two on-campus courses.)

The following were the set of Discussions that students met, once they accessed EDUC486:

Conference EDUC486:

16650. Meeting place

16651. Bibliography

16652. Mega-chat

16653. IMAGINATION AND EDUCATION: Part I.

16654. IMAGINATION AND EDUCATION: Part II.

16655. IMAGINATION AND EDUCATION: Part III.

16656. WARNOCK . Pts. I and II

16657. WARNOCK. Pt. III.

16658. WARNOCK. Pts. IV and V.

16659. TEACHING AS STORY TELLING. Chs. 1- 3.

16660. TEACHING AS STORY TELLING. Chs. 4 - end.

16661. "Relevance and Imagination" and "Romantic Imagination".

16662. THE EDUCATED IMAGINATION

16663. Jim Iker

16664. Dawn Angelski

16665. Jaymie Atkinson

16666. Alison Davies

16667. Andrew Karassowitsch

16668. Jan Nicol

16669. Ingrid Switzier

16670. Ted Wallace

16671. Sandra Willeck

16672. Susan Zuckerman

16673. Julie Witt

16674. Joyce MacDonald

16683. DEBATE #1: IMAGINATION - COMMON OR RARE?

16684. DEBATE #2 - GENETIC OR LEARNED?

16685. DEBATE #3 - UNIVERSAL OR PARTICULAR?

17606. Assignments

 

Discussions 16653 to 16662 were keyed to the readings of the course, and Discussions 16663 to 16674 were created for the students. I invited them to use "their" Discussions for indicating what they would like to write papers on, with the anticipation that everyone would pitch in with suggestions, criticism, etc. I also suggested that they might enter their papers here once they were written, so that each student could see everyone else's paper - to make up, a little, for the lack of class conversation. I said that I would print off the papers, comment on them, and return them by surface mail. Few students took advantage of this. None, I think, printed their papers in "their" Discussions.

The "Meeting place" served its simple purpose of having everyone sign on and tell us a little about themselves. I was interested to note that a number of the students, indeed, nearly all of them, wrote what I thought might be mini-autobiographies here. This proved useful, as clearly the students tried hard to form some images of each other, and refered to details of these entries at various times during the course. "Bibliography" served its usual purpose, but rather scantily here. It became clear that many of the students found the load of reading and the wrestling with the technology such that they did not have time for much in the way of additional reading. I think the time required to maneuver around *Forum for someone with uncertain hook-ups through Datapac - though all should be easy - was a considerable disincentive to frequent and casual participation. "Mega-chat" was hardly used at all. Again, I think students felt they were being heroic keeping up with the required work, and had little energy for mega-chatting. I put the "Assignments" on the system, even though they had been sent to each student by mail before the course began. And the three "Debates" were hardly attended to either.

We had some problems at the beginning of the course that made start-up less than smooth and ideal. One of the required books turned up late in too few numbers. Students swore they had never received various papers that were eventually sent out twice, some students had the usual immense problems making contact with *Forum, one never doing so adequately. We conducted a phone and e-mail course. One student dropped out early, due to such problems. Two others dropped out later, unable to keep up with the reading and writing assignments because of travel involved with Ministry committees. The course had maybe six or seven regular participants. The normal expectation of the students was to enter a mini-essay on the readings each week. There was some, but not a lot, of commentary on each others' comments. Little interaction took place, except with me. Just occasionally someone would address a comment to one of the other students, but usually it was directed towards me. I guess this is what one might have expected, though I suspect that the small number of participants and their infrequent comments made interaction among them difficult. Also I guess I hindered it by requiring four written assignments. I thought to make up for the in-class discussion of topics by having them write relatively frequently, and I could comment liberally on their papers. But a side-result was to diminish their participation in *Forum. It was clear in which weeks assignments were due; I would sign on and find no new comments day after day.

Those are the down-side. But there were some very positive features of the course too. One thing, which I hadn't anticipated, as the conditions related to it seem no different for on-campus courses, was the frequency with which students took an idea from the readings or the discussion and tried it out in class the next day and reported on it the day after. This meant that the comments were frequently very lengthy descriptions of their implementation of an idea, and - usually - its success in their classroom. This led to a generally very up-beat tone in the comments, and a sense of their general usefulness.

The relatively extensive comments of the readings had the effect, reported by a number of students, of persuading others to go back and read essays or chapters again. I suppose this happens in regular classes as frequently (?), but it was mentioned a number of times here.

Some of the students in more remote places (some of which I still haven't found on a B.C. map) seemed so delighted and enthusiastic to be able to take a course (any course) that they entered into it determined to get everything they could out of it. This showed through their comments, and contributed to the up-beat sense of the course. I suspect the topic itself, encouraged this. Imagination seems to be generally approved of, but in practice little is available either to explicate it or to validate the work of teachers who try to stimulate it, so fairly detailed study of it, and a focus on what could be done to encourage its use in teaching seemed to make most of the participants pretty perky.

Another unexpected feature of the course was the amount of direct e-mail correspondence I had with students, both of the "mega-chat" variety and also concerning the content of readings and of their papers. Clearly many students wanted to discuss things with me about the course that they did not want to share with a bunch of strangers.

 

Recommendations for future offerings of such computer mediated courses:

Preparation:

It is obviously vital to get to students the books and schedule of readings, etc., and instructions on how to navigate the *Forum system as long before the course begins as possible. To be able to do this we will need to work out relationships with the bookstore and with the registrar's office - to get addresses etc. - that are not at the moment routine.

It proved very useful to have a group name set up so that I could make more direct e-mail contact with all the students. David Bell set this up, and it was used many times.

Request students when they first sign on to "Meeting place" to include their phone #s and a description of their hard- and soft-ware. This would enable students with similar configurations to help each other out. (Also long-lost friends, as turned out to be the case in this course - might make quicker reacquaintance of what has happened since grade 6).

Request students to send a photograph of themselves. Many students mentioned that it was a considerable inhibition having no visual image of the other students. If we could get photographs and reproduce them and send them out quickly, I suspect that might help a lot.

Set a minimum number of participants at about 12 for the class to "run". I realise that this would still have enabled this class to have run, but I hope the losses we suffered, and the number of people who could not access the system with any regularity, would not be normal. Perhaps one might even put the number as high as 15. A "critical mass" is certainly necessary for *Forum to become a truly interactive teaching medium. But if one had more than about 20-25 students I suspect it could become daunting.

 

Running:

More experience might help clarify the issue of work load. When I sent around a question about work load, all the students indicated they thought it was too much. In part, I suspect, this was due to one of the books being rather difficult for them (Mary Warnock's Imagination). The more conscientious, which was a high proportion, clearly wrestled with this at length. And lacking the easier interactivity of a class, found it difficult to get my help with the particular problems they faced. There were quite a lot of "What does she mean by..." and in their papers I was able to deal with a number of problems - but I felt too late and too little. This was a frustration, which I don't think is simply solved by only requiring easy readings. We need to give more thought to how we can deal with difficult conceptual material via *Forum. It is not hospitable to lengthy philosophical exegesis. Perhaps written material to supplement such readings might be useful - something between a kind of Ausubel "advance organizer" and Cole's notes.

If the students are only inputting once each week, if that, and are then in-putting lengthy prepared mini-papers, there is little room for frequent interaction. If one tries to raise a question, or invites others' comments on some point made, there may be no response for days. Some mechanism for encouraging briefer and more frequent participation is necessary. Perhaps the instructor should make it clear at the beginning that students' comments in *Forum will not be graded.

 

In general:

Instructor work-load : Despite my initial fear that this course was going to take at least twice as much time as a normal course, I guess it worked out over-all as little more than normal. And I suspect that any further offering of a similar course could economize on the time I spent preparing for this one. Once we were into the semester, largely due to the relatively infrequent comments and the few students involved, I did not need to spend as much time on the computer and marking papers as with an on-campus course. And even if the time was not much less, the fact that I could choose when to spend it made it seem so.

I tried to use the phone as little as possible, to give the system a proper trial, but I found it necessary a number of times to phone students. I think we should assume that the telephone is a necessary adjunct to the computer in such a course, and not feel reluctant to use it. Also we should encourage the students to phone the instructor, and have clear "office hours" at home for them.

There has been a curious pleasure in having some of the students go to some trouble to come in to campus to say hello, and, primarily, see the person they have been in such close but totally unintimate contact with.

 

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