Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Don't Monkey with Success

A few weeks ago I did this:

For those of you not versed in my particular brand of poor penmanship, the angry calligraphy at the bottom of this sheet reads: "Don't do this Again -Move back to Discussion Board!!"  This fit of pique was inspired by my online world literature course and its use of Voicethread.  What once was revolutionary (well, for little ol' YC) and progressive, had, over the past few years, grown stale and burdensome.

Voicethread, which allows students to engage in online discussions using voice and video, is seldom welcomed with open arms by new students.  There are some technical hurdles to jump and the ever-present web browser shenanigans to overcome before students can settle into its use.  I would get emails -not many, but enough.  Sometimes they were mean.  Couple this with the requisite work and logistics required outside of Blackboard's traditional grading system, and my enthusiasm had more than flagged.  Why not simply use the built-in, well-worn discussion board feature?  Most everyone else does it, and the students expect it.  I've previously discussed the advantages of having actual faces in an online course, but it had come to feel as if the benefits no longer outweighed the negatives.

The reason for this is related to the unique workspace of an online instructor.  We sit in front of a computer, technically connected to the entire world, and yet, effectively and most often, alone in a room.  Our interactions with students generally come in the from of emails, and, as is the nature of feedback, its usually from the disgruntled.  The silent and happy majority do not make an appearance.  Thus, we encounter a complaint and then set about our work, which is made more onerous through the use of the exact same gadget the student was ragging on.  In my case, Voicethread.  Because Voicethread does not interact directly with Blackboard's grade book, I have to count and identify discussion posts myself.  A crumpled and ugly spreadsheet (shown above) is my method of choice.  This is time-intensive (20 students x 5 video posts each = 100 short videos per week) and is vulnerable to English instructor math mistakes.  After a couple of years of complaints (which, though few in number, loom large in a vacuum) and hard work (after each semester the posts have to be individually deleted by hand: 100 videos x 12 topics =1,200 total), I had decided to revert back to the simpler days of the discussion board.

However, on a whim, I chose to first include an opinion poll in that week's reading quiz:

"Please state which of the following formats for online class discussion you would prefer and briefly explain why:  A,  the voicethread/guestbook method we are currently using, or B,  the traditional discussion board approach with better organization but no video or audio."

The results were surprising.  Two students said they were ambivalent and one student said she preferred the discussion board.  The entire rest of the class indicated they liked or even loved Voicethread.  Some of the endorsements were less than ringing: "A-because I can state how I feel at the time without having to be grammatically correct."  But others were downright awesome:

  • "I would prefer to keep the method that we are using now which is the voicethread/guestbook. I find it to be more personable. I like to see the other students, as well as listening to their responses. It helps with understanding the material especially when students go into detail about what they read, and how it made them feel. I don't think this can be conveyed through mere writing." 
  • "I went to an online high school. I spent my two years of high school video chatting with teachers and answering questions face to face. Through these two years, I liked the way my classes were set up, I’d do work in writing, and multiple choices, like these quizzes, and then do video chatting like in the Guestbook. In college, I’ve taken the majority of my courses online, each one the same, a discussion board post, with two replies, and that was it. I like the way this class is different, the way it allows students to interact such as they would in discussion board, but this just seems to be more personal, it really gives off a sense of connecting with the other students. I know every week, I think, “Oh, I wonder what Rachel’s going to think.” I like being able to listen to other people’s opinions and compare them to my own. It might’ve been a bit awkward at first, but I got used to it, and I honestly look forward to doing the voice threads. This type of format makes it a bit more fin and a lot more personal, which is something that I like."
Needless to say, despite my angry chicken-scratch above, I will be keeping Voicethread in my course.  The moral here being, don't simply bow to what Blackboard does best, and, before assuming what students do or do not want online, don't be afraid to ask them!