Monday, November 24, 2008

A few strategies for setting the right tone for online discussions

As a staple of online instructional interaction, online discussions are a big part of what takes place in the learning community – it is through these discussions, often, that much of the learning occurs. Therefore, learners’ comfort with participating in online discussions can have a big influence on what they achieve in the course. Comfort can be achieved through establishing trust with the instructor and with course colleagues, and through practice via non-threatening discussion experiences. To establish trust, consider the following strategies:
  • Share a story, related to the content of the course if possible, that gives learners insight into your values, passions, interests, etc. Consider using a tool such as PowerPoint to enhance your story with photos, images, and audio clips (including your voice) – making it a digital story, in other words. See for an example of a digital story that helps my students feel more connected to me (and, therefore, more willing to share and participate in course activities, specifically discussion) while introducing an important topic my courses – values for teaching and learning. Notice that students never see the me, but hear my voice, see photos of my family, and listen to me describe a life-altering event that reflects my own values around teaching and learning. Now that I have shared, the students are more open to sharing.

  • Ask students to post bios/introductions, but to encourage discourse around the shared information ask them to share of list of “facts” about themselves – some true and some not true. Have students engage in a “20 Questions” like discussion so they can determine which facts are in fact false. Besides the practice with using the discussion forum tool and responding appropriately to others’ messages, students start making connections that help them feel more comfortable. “We graduated from the same high school!” “You like to quilt too. What was your last project?” “I’ve been to Australia too. You have to go to Perth…” “What do you mean, ‘Don’t get off the boat in Ensenada’? There’s a story there.”

  • For purposes of practicing online discussion (using the tools, protocols, etiquette, etc.), give learners opportunities to discuss non-threatening, low-judgmental topics. Consider the following activities:
    • Send students to a website that requires they do something and then ask them to share their experience with the group. For example,
      • Have students visit and respond to the following questions in a discussion forum:
        - What happens to you while you are there?
        - What is your favorite part of the experience?
        - Why do you think I am asking you to do these sorts of activities?
      • Have them visit the Mr. Picassohead website -- -- and create an artwork, then submit a link to the discussion forum. Once posted, encourage students to comment on each other’s artwork.

    • Post entertaining photos (not related to the course content) and ask students to share their captions. See below for an example of one of my favorite photos with some student captions.

      A few student captions:
      • Wait please! I do have good news...I just saved tons of money on my car insurance by switching to Geico.
      • Tim Burton "re-imagines" When Harry Met Sally.
      • I can take the giant brain, I can take the claws for hands, but why must you insist on wearing blue leather pants every time we go out?
      • MIT student enrolls at UCD. Instructors panic!
      • Listen, you're a nice guy and have a great personality, but my mother simply won't accept a son-in-law whose brain is on the outside.
      • During a break on the set, Ted belts out a rendition of "If I only had brain" on his air guitar. Meanwhile, Mary makes a run for it, hoping her career as an actress is still intact.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Wordle...just for phluff?

I've been using a fun (and quite popular) online tool called Wordle to produce images of word collections. For example, I recently created a Wordle image as a main page graphic for my online course. Here is a simple one that summarizes what I write about on this blog --

In this example, some words -- such as teaching -- are larger than others because they are included in the word list more frequently than others. To illustrate, if I were creating a Wordle image to represent the concept of baseball, my initial list of terms for this concept would include: baseball, bat, field, hat, player, field, umpire, glove, stadium, fans, hotdogs, popcorn, etc. This list would produce a Wordle image in which all of the words were the same size, indicating that they were of equal importance in understanding the concept of baseball. However, from my perspective, the word baseball is more important to understanding the concept then hotdog or popcorn. Therefore, I would modify the list as follows to make sure baseball was the most prominent word in the Wordle image: baseball, baseball bat, baseball field, baseball hat, baseball player, baseball field, and so on. With the revised list, the most frequently used word is baseball, so it would be the largest word in the Wordle image. In this way, I can easily illustrate word strength and importance within a list of words if desirable.

Wordle can be used for instructional purposes. For example, I have asked students to produce Wordle images that represent their understanding of a reading, topic, concept, or idea. Then, I ask small groups of students to debrief their images together to discuss what terms they selected and why, why some terms are larger than others (or what terms should be larger than others because they are more important), and so on. A variation is to limit the number of words students (working as individuals or in small groups) can use to describe a complex concept (e.g., constructivism, eLearning, diversity), and have them create a Wordle image that captures the essence of the concept with exactly 20 words. I have also used it to create word collections and asked students to determine how the words are connected, and what topic the collection of words describe. These types of activities encourage students to reflect on a topic or concept, and articulate their understanding based on that reflection.

Wordle can also be used during class introductions, specifically in online courses. Instead of asking students to share a bio, students can produce a Wordle image that summarizes who they are, likes and dislikes, hobbies, and so on. Again, it is a fun way to encourage reflection, articulation, and sharing.