Organizing Your Course in Blackboard
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Every successful course begins with a clear syllabus, which contains the course description, objectives, requirements, deadlines and assessment methods. Having a clear syllabus is even more essential in an online or web-assisted course when students may be unclear about expectations. We encourage faculty to move beyond a basic outline of weekly assignments to create a comprehensive document, which will inform and guide students throughout the entire semester. The course syllabus works as a contract between you and the student; therefore it should provide more than just due dates. The student should gain a clear understanding of the course by reading the syllabus during the first week and should be encouraged to review this document frequently throughout the semester. It is customary for faculty to place the syllabus under the Course Information button, and students may find it helpful to have the syllabus components broken into separate folders. Please consider the various parts of this sample syllabus and share your comments in the discussion board.
Welcome to what many consider the most important aspect of an online course - the discussion board. The discussion board is the most vital communication channel for your class. The discussion board is the equivalent of a classroom discussion and any successful technique you have used in a face-to-face classroom to foster participation can be simulated in an online environment including group discussion. There are various strategies for facilitating a discussion and we will review some those in this section.
Usually the first question asked about discussion boards is how much weight does it carry towards the final grade. It is universally agreed that a discussion board should be part of the final grade but there is no set value. Faculty at Pace and other universities have used different percentages. Over the years as discussion boards have become more robust their grade value has increased. Your decision on a percentage will be determined by what you expect to take place in the discussion board and how vital the board is to your course. Whether your course is web assisted or completely online, will also have an impact!
Applying the discussion board as part of the final grade raises a very serious consideration. How do you plan to grade the discussion board? We strongly recommend that you establish grading standards for student discussions. Let the students know how many posts you expect of them and also what you will accept stylistically in a post. See example in "Assessment."
Over the past few years asynchronous (online) teaching/learning has matured and there has been a paradigm shift in how to facilitate a discussion. A few years ago it was common practice for a faculty member to lead the discussion and respond to each of the student postings. The biggest challenge with this model was the amount of time spent on responding to each post. There was also another problem with faculty lead discussions and that was the issue of shutting down the class discussion. Some students felt intimidated to post for fear of how the faculty member would respond. The shift that is underway is to have the students lead the discussions where the faculty member assigns a student leader who opens the discussion and monitors the class postings. This does not mean that you should not respond at all. You may need to step in if the discussion is not staying on topic. With the faculty member as a silent partner in the discussion board the students will be more spontaneous with their posts.
In Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace (Jossey-Bass, 1999) Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt suggest ways to promote "Dialog as Inquiry." They write, "when students engage in discussions with each other rather than with the instructor, the possibilities for collaboration grow significantly" (p.118). It is important for the instructor to be able to facilitate this dialog without dominating it by asking the right kinds of questions, by getting participants to share the responsibility for facilitating discussion, and by encouraging (even requiring) students to provide constructive feedback to one another.
Questioning - The instructor needs to model expansive, open-ended questions that stimulate thinking, and get students to ask these questions of each other. If the response to a question is minimal, the instructor might jump in with another question to expand the level of thinking on the original question.
Sharing Responsibility for Facilitation - One way to ensure active participation is to assign students the responsibility for leading a portion of the discussion. The instructor may set up a rotation so that each student might have to present something to the rest of the group. Also, when essays are due, other members of the group would have the responsibility for reading that paper and posting feedback and a response. Another activity might require one student to lead a discussion while another acts as an observer and comments on the process, while another might summarize the process.
The roles that students might take in an online course include:
- Facilitator of the discussion
- Process observer, commenting on group dynamics
- Content commentator, summarizing the group's learning for the week
- Team leader, with or without the additional responsibility of evaluating the work of the other members
- Presenter on a particular topic, book, or area of interest (p.121)
It is up to the instructor to allow the students some latitude in the discussion. For the most part, "the instructor must control the urge to lead and become more like a follower"
Promoting Feedback - The ability to give meaningful feedback, which helps others think about their work needs to be taught, modeled, and encouraged by the instructor. The students need to learn to go beyond "good work" or "I agree." At the same time, students need to be reassured that the feedback is not meant personally, but rather is focused on their ideas and presentation. Getting students to point out strengths and ask questions about material not understood is an important technique.
According to the Concord Consortium, organizers of the Moving out of the Middle online course the following steps should be taken when moderating an online discussion.
- Rationale - What is the rationale for the post? What purpose does it serve? Is the group focused? What might be the result of intervening now? Is the timing sensible?
Dialog Elements - What dialog elements (citations, paraphrases or quotes from participants' postings) might fit into the post? How do these relate to the rationale, the assignment, and the direction of the dialog?
- Critical Thinking Strategy - Given your rationale and selected dialog elements, which critical thinking strategy would best support your purpose? Do you need to help the group sharpen the focus or dig deeper?
- Voice - Given our rationale, dialog elements, and critical thinking strategy, what voice may be the most appropriate? (reflective guide, personal muse etc.)
- Tone - Consider what tone fits best with the rationale, dialog elements, strategy and voice? Is a social frame or introduction needed?
- Outline the Post - Roughly outline, perhaps mentally, the proposed posting including elements drawn from the dialog.
- Craft the Intervention - Compose the post. The purpose of the note should be clearly reflected through the strategy and voice selected. You may wish to try out an alternative voice or strategy to see which fits better. You may use questions, paraphrase, seek clarification, cite tensions, introduce a metaphor or anecdote, or use a drawing or cartoon.
- Reflect Participants' Contributions - Participants' thoughts and questions should be prominent in the body of the composition. The post should be a reflection of their ideas, not yours.
- Craft a Message Title - Compose an opening and title (subject line) that catches interest, honors contributions, and transitions to the content of the post effectively.
- Review and Revise - Review the process starting with the rationale. Is the posting too broad, too narrow, too complex, too simplistic? Does it effectively weave and focus participant ideas or open them to a deeper level? Revise if need be.
Discussion Board Grading Sample
The following grading standards have been established by the Literature and Communications Department. Modifications have been made to address the "online" component for the course.
A - Outstanding To earn an "A" for the online component of the course there must be frequent posts (substantially above the minimum requirement) and all postings are insightful, critically developed and contribute positively to the "class discussion". The schedule of postings is also a grading factor. Posting early in the unit week is encouraged in order to promote further discussion and inquiry by classmates. All responses to classmates' postings are well developed and insightful enhancing the discussion and leading to further discussion or question.
B – Good Work To earn an "B" for the online component of the course the number of postings are above the minimum number and they are insightful, critically developed and contribute positively to the class discussion. Postings are done by the deadline thereby promoting further discussion and inquiry by classmates. All responses to classmates' postings are not fully developed nor do they offer significant insightful making it difficult to further the discussion or raise new questions/issues.
C - Adequate Work To earn a "C" for the online component of the course equates to few postings (just meeting the minimum requirement). Postings do not offer any insight to the discussions or readings. They are general comments and opinions that are not critically developed. The posts do not negatively impact the class discussion but they do not promote further discussion or questions. The schedule of postings tends to be "last minute." All responses to classmates' postings are generalized comments that are not well thought out.
D - Poor Work To earn a "D" for the online component the minimum number of postings is not met and some units are missed. The postings in general only make an occasional reference to the assignment, readings or discussion preventing further discussion or questions. Responses to other students’ postings are not positive and they lack insightful comments limiting further discussion.
F - Unacceptable Work An "F" grade for the online component will result from failure to maintain the minimum number of postings and having missed units. Postings are not organized, developed, and inappropriate comments are made. Responses to other student's postings are not consistent and they do not add to the discussion nor raise new questions.
Creating Community in an online course is essential in order to bridge the distance, enhance learning, motivate and retain students. Because students cannot see you or their peers, they may feel isolated. They need to know that you and the other students “out there” are actively engaged in the learning process. This does not happen automatically. One helpful resource on this topic is Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace by Palloff and Pratt (1999). Palloff and Pratt assert, “In distance education, attention needs to be paid to the developing sense of community within the group of participants in order for the learning process to be successful” (29). Faculty can begin creating this sense of community before the course begins by providing students with information about how and when the course will run. Please refer to Contacting Students in Module I.