Frankly, I prefer to see people "coming to class" regularly. You are expected to work within the classroom. Several posts on several different days indicates better attendance than the same number dumped into the classroom all within half an hour of each other on the last day of a conference. Note that the University says you should log on "three or more times every week." (see "Academic Policies" in the Syllabus.) I ask for at least four postings per week. Data-dumps lasting minutes on a single day do not indicate as much classwork as regular attendance in which your presence is noted several times over a period of days.
Do I expect everyone to respond to all the topics? I have visions of me as a mullah in a madrassa, expecting you all to recite the answers in unison while banging your head on the floor. Strikes me as a wildly boring way to learn, both for the kids AND the mullah. NO. Think of any real classroom course you have taken -- has any professor, ever, gone round the room expecting the same answer to the same question from every student? I hope not.
What I do each week is stick up a few topics as conversation starters. What I hope is that A will respond, B will respond to A, C will argue with B, D will support C, and a conversation thread develops. A may have an opinion about Topic X, but none about Topic Y. Fair enough. If there are four topics and Student A only responds to two of them, but does so enthusiastically, that's fine.
I realize there are some faculty out there who award a point for this and half a point for that, and expect you to respond to three and a half colleagues with at least two and a quarter responses and three asides by 1705 Thursday and I don't know where they find the time to do all that counting because as far as I'm concerned life's too short and I don't work that way.
All I ask is that people "show interest," which I reckon is demonstrated by a minimum of four meaningful postings a week. Surely the class between you all can generate enough ideas that everyone can find at least four reasonable things to say to each other each week. I hope so. (Remember, please, that minimum input does not translate as maximum grade.)
To be meaningful, your entries should (a) address the specific comments or questions of others, (b) tie in with the issues or material under discussion by others, (c) advance the group discussion a step further through thoughtful, personal observations, (d) serve to support others in the discussion, and (e) are addressed to others than just me. In other words, I like to see some indication that you're reading what other people have to say. This is not a dialogue between you and me. Nor should it be your own monologue. It's a class discussion. Those who enter discussions later should attempt to summarize what has gone before, and to fit their posts into the discussion, rather than writing on what they suppose is a "carte blanche". If the carte ain't blanche, then you don't have carte blanche to start the conversation as if nothing has been said before you. :-)
I prefer to see good writing. That doesn't mean excellent grammar or precise punctuation need to be used in the conferences because the conferences are like spoken discussions and in a face-to-face classroom I don't take the "um's" and "er's" of spoken dialogue into account. No-one does. So I would prefer good writing but not at the expense of interaction. But I happily admit that a student who uses Spell Check is closer to my heart than someone who just throws any old thing up on the screen without caring what it looks like. You'll see that I use casual language, a chatty form. Fragments. Smileys :-) but I hope that I always make myself clear and that I'm reasonably careful about what I post. I hope you will be too, if for no other reason than it makes your own life easier if you're not plowing through other people's mistakes. I don't punish bad English in unassessed work. Let me make that clear. But good English is preferred for the sake of clarity.
I like to see some sort of (a) logical (b) development of ideas. Besides logical argument, I reward any post that can develop an idea and put a specific topic in a wider context.
I reward anyone who has gone the extra mile and comes back with a reference to some outside work or material. Indications that their positions are based on textbook reading rather than pure opinion are also rewarded. Also, indications that they are sensitive to conflicting opinions -- I often read posts that suggest the writer hasn't bothered to read the topic thread or take on board any peer opinion, i.e. "This is my opinion and it is as good as anyone else's so I don't have to read anyone else's ideas." Not much critical thinking going on there.
I don't take the length of post into account. I reckon a
good simple question is worth far more that a page of meanderings.
So how do we do this?
In a successful learning conversation, participants generate explanations and produce justifications, are willing to see things in new ways, challenge current understandings, are open to views that conflict with their own, are happy for people to question them, and do not dismiss and routinely criticize other ideas. In fact, conversations that lead to learning tend to take a certain form. Participants extend, paraphrase, refine, complete or critique a partner's reasoning.
For example some typical phrases are:
Remember, please, that this is not twenty five classes with one student in each, but one class with twenty five students who talk to each other. So please try to tie things together, and think about how your post fits into the discussion: summarize what's gone before, agree with people, disagree and explain why -- in short, interact.
- I have a further thought...,
- Besides the point that ... made, I think...
- I see, what you mean is ...,
- So far in the discussion, most have said that..., but/and I think...
- I should have made the distinction between... and ... clearer.
- It depends on what you mean by...
- Is what you're trying to say..?
- I agree and in addition ... is also going to have an effect ...
- It looks as if we are all in agreement that...
- If I can summarize the debate so far, it looks as if...
- Aren't you missing this important point...,
Don't they distinguish .....
"Kirk and Melinda and Richard have already said everything and no-one is interested in my opinion anyway and I don't see why I should have to participate...."
I've heard it. Modern educational theory argues, however, that collaboration is the crux of the learning process. Research indicates that students learn more, and better, and retain knowledge longer, if the learning process is interactive, not just with the material or instructor, but also with peers. That is the heart of the matter. Research indicates that students learn more and better when they do not just sit passively and soak up information like sponges; they need to be active participants in the learning process. I want to hear from you all, even if you think it has all been said before.
There are different levels or types of interaction. First, you interact with the course material and subject matter. You also interact formally with the instructor. And you interact with your colleagues. To ignore one entire third of the process is not on. Interaction with others is part of the game plan. Articulating your ideas is a means of getting you to think critically about your work, your ideas, and other people's attitudes. Even if you believe Mary or Michael has said it all in his/her post, you should still post your own topic, for your own sake. Getting the idea out of your brain, down your arm, and onto the page is active learning, even if it's only to say "I agree with Mike".
Equally importantly, in a changing world, it is seen as important not just to know today's facts but to learn how to learn tomorrow's facts. In the business world, you will be cooperating with colleagues on group projects in which the answers are not on page 17 of a textbook. You need to learn how to collaborate to find answers and reach goals. So part of the goal in education is to help foster collaborative strategies, leadership skills, the awareness of group dynamics, tolerance of colleagues and civility in public discourse.
So what does this all mean at the individual level?
Besides "passing the course," you should have several broader objectives in mind -- or at least be aware that faculty have these goals in mind:
One final point about when to participate. Let's say a conference is open for a eight-day stretch. Some people get in early. Others do the readings and then come on-line after a few days. But some say nothing for seven days and then load their replies on the last day. If you do that, your colleagues do not have time to reply to anything you've said -- it's like a comment shouted as you close the classroom door on your way out. That's not discussion; it's fire-and-forget, one-way monologue aimed at no-one in particular.
I weight participation grades towards the beginning of a conference. There's no set mathematical equation (a post on day 7 is not worth 1/7th of a mark, nor one on day 3 worth 4/7s). Life's too short. But I do recognize that some students take the lead and pull the freight behind them, while others are always last in line. Participation at the very last minute doesn't count for as much as early participation. Sorry. Unless, of course someone does a really great job of summarizing the discussion so far, which is a great talent in its own right. But simply repeating what everyone has said so far, without giving at least a nod to your colleagues is, well, being impolite to them, don't you think?
And finally, when do conferences close?
In a 3-hour face-to-face class, the instructor may wind up his or her class a few minutes early. Everyone has said what they want to say, and the topics have been covered, so the class says goodnight. Then in through the classroom door at 5 minutes to the hour, as the class is breaking up, comes a late student, demanding the right to participate. But the lesson has ended, and everyone is going home.
Conversation begins on Sundays when I post new material, builds during
the week to the weekend, and *winds down* through to the following Sunday.
You should not seek to *begin* your interaction on the last day of the
conference. If anyone wants to *interact* in a conference, rather
than opening the classroom door at one minute to the hour as class breaks
up, I suggest they do so in a reasonable manner. One cannot interact
at the very last minute. Thank you for your understanding.