An Online Pot Luck Dinner?

Online learning environments can be pretty confusing places to new online students and educators. To help reduce this confusion, I like to use metaphors to describe the functions, activities and components of teaching and learning online.  For instance, when I lead professional development sessions, I’m often asked about the planning process for creating and teaching a new online class.  While the process involves the traditional phases that are captured in most instructional design models, I find it’s better to describe my online course development as party planning.  When someone hosts a party, they have to consider how people are going to interact, what types of music they’re going to listen to, what they’re going to eat and so on.  Good hosts do a lot of this planning before a single person arrives.  This allows the host to attend to the needs of their guests and to enjoy the party themselves.

While I understand this is a simplistic metaphor, I find it best captures my role as an instructional designer and as an online teacher. I’ll spend weeks developing a class, selecting content and planning interactions and assessments so that I can focus on the day-to-day business of meeting students’ needs and fostering engagement once the class starts.  I plan my “online party” before the class begins so I can be a better host once the party starts.

I’m teaching two online classes this semester and they are starkly different.  I’ve taught both classes several times and the classes are usually quite interactive, especially in the discussion forums.  It’s my stated goal in both classes that I’m attempting to foster a larger learning community where ideas and resources are exchanged and critiqued.  In one class, the students are sharing links to websites, uploading articles they’ve found online, embedding videos from different sources and really taking the discussions in new directions.  The other class, however, isn’t as active or as collaborative.  Students contribute posts and respond to each other but there doesn’t seem to be any real online learning community being formed.

As I’ve been thinking about the differences, I wondered whether the students had a clear understanding of what online discussion should look like.  We’ve all participated in face-to-face classroom discussions but a discussion forum is something entirely different.  In a face-to-face class, we’d never expect everyone to answer a prompt and then to respond the posts from two peers.  Yet, those expectations permeate online discussion forums.  Although they are used in many online classes, these expectations alone will reduce discussions to “bean counting” and won’t necessarily promote the type of engagement and exchange of ideas that I’m trying to foster.

Maybe a better metaphor is needed for online discussions.  To carry on with the party theme, I offer the “pot luck dinner” as a means of describing the rich and thoughtful discussions that I’m trying to build.  The “pot luck dinner” is a communal experience where everyone brings a dish to share.  The host usually offers a main course and asks the attendees to bring complementary items.  One person may bring a salad.  Another might bring a dessert.  Someone else may bring beverages.  With everyone contributing to the party, the overall meal becomes more complex and appetizing.  And people always leave satiated.

That’s what I’m trying to promote when I “host” a discussion forum.  I’m not interested in my students just submitting a requisite numbers of posts.  I want them to feed the group.  I want them to bring in complementary content and make the discussions more complex and appetizing for all of us.  While I’m contributing the “main course,” I’m hoping that the class will bring in resources and ideas to extend the meal.  Through this “potluck” experience, we’re all satiated.

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