“Learn” Discussion Forums, Knowledge Sharing, and Privacy, Part 2

After the Rhet&WWW team presentations and seminar discussions were completed, I asked my 24 students to submit a private individual reflection to me about their team process, including any comments they might have about how the Learn environment shaped their experience.  One purpose in this blog entry is to respond to a couple of concerns expressed about the openness of the discussion forums—concerns that inspired me to reflect more on why I chose to use open forums in this course.

One set of reflections focused on assignments, which the student defined as personal and private transactions between student and professor.  The reflection expressed discomfort about students being able to access others’ assignments.  This is certainly indicative, I think, of tension between educational paradigms.  On the one hand, posting assignments to forums within an online class is hardly a new or radical element of online learning, as this online teaching guide from Flinders University attests:

By posting assignments, via e-mail or the Discussion Forums to each other, students can give each other feedback before submission to you.  This assists in promoting the critiquing of other people’s work, collaborative work practices, and increasing the quality of submissions.  By using the Discussion Forums or e-mail, you can also trace the amount of feedback given and used.  (Emphasis mine)

On the other hand, for some students (not to mention faculty and institutions), it’s still a radical move to redefine assignments not as strictly private student-professor transactions but as tools for building knowledge sharing communities.  I’m sure more than two students found it unsettling to move from “closed” to “open”; from “teacher has knowledge, student doesn’t” to “open and transformative group of individuals interacting” (Peters, 2004, p. 30).

Now I don’t want to imply a simplistic dualism between “traditional/private” = lecture hall and “new paradigm/shared” = online.  At least one of the ETEC courses I took used the WebCT Assignment Tool, which uploads work directly from student to prof.  There are legitimate pedagogical reasons, depending on the course goals and outcomes, and (unfortunately) compelling institutional reasons why online courses would want to use private assignment submissions.  There’s also an assignment tool in Learn—though if you go a few entries back in this blog, you’ll see there was some tension among Sakai designers about incorporating tools that perpetuate “hierarchical” pedagogy.  But I decided early on that the Assignment Tool wouldn’t fulfill my outcomes.

Why?  As Caplan (2004) notes,

Instructors and other members of the online course development team should strive to create learning environments that exploit the features inherent in computers and the Web, in order to promote active learning that resides in the control of the student, and that can effectively lead to the development of high-order and critical thinking skills.

In an online course that defines the web as social discourse and explores relationships between these discourses and community, I’d argue it makes sense to promote active learning and critical thinking by making our research, results, and arguments available to each other for learning and constructive critique.  As Bruffee argues, such sharing

… is one way of introducing students to the process by which communities of knowledgeable peers create referential connections between symbolic structures and “reality,” that is, by which they establish knowledge and by doing so maintain community growth and coherence.

Would it have helped, I wonder, to emphasize these benefits and principles more explicitly in Week 1 – or perhaps even moot the topic in a discussion group?

In my final entry about knowledge sharing and privacy in “Learn” Discussion Forums, I’ll respond to the second concern raised:  the possibility of plagiarism.

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References:

Bruffee, K. A. (1984).  Collaborative learning and the “conversation of mankind.” College English 46, 7: 635-652.  Electronic version available from JStore.

Caplan, D.  (2004). The development of online courses.  In: Anderson, T. & Elloumi, F. Theory and Practice of Online Learning.  Athabasca University.  Retrieved 8 April 2007 from http://cde.athabascau.ca/online_book/ch7.html

Peters, O.  (2004).  Distance Education in Transition: New Trends and Challenges. 4th ed. Oldenburg: Bibliotheks-und Informationssystem der Universität Oldenburg.

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