By James J. Barney
Professor of Legal Studies, School of Security and Global Studies, American Public University
This is the first article of a two-part series on improving online class instruction.
The term “silo mentality” is used in the business world to describe a situation when information does not freely flow between parts of an organization. This results in decreased productivity as well as confusion and conflict among parts of the organization and its employees. While most online instructors do not view their online classes as small organizations, they should view their courses in such a manner.
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Online classes sometimes suffer from the same problems that plague businesses. Like any organization, an online course, improperly designed and delivered by an instructor, can result in problems, including the “silo mentality.”
If students are isolated and confused due to poor course construction or delivery, they could suffer from student frustration. Student confusion, frustration, and isolation – all side effects of the “silo mentality” – can in the long run result in decreased student success and poor retention rates.
Online instructors must design and deliver their courses in a way that embraces transparency, provides students with an opportunity to develop meaningful student-to-student and instructor-to-student relationships, and establishes clear expectations. Online instructors can utilize discussion board-centric courses that incorporate experiential teaching and either high-tech or low-tech learning methods to combat the “silo mentality” in the online classroom.
Much Criticism of Online Discussion Boards Is Misplaced
In recent years, it has become quite fashionable in some academic circles to criticize online discussion boards and forums (for simplicity’s sake, collectively referred to here as online discussion boards). These critics argue that online discussion boards – mainstays of the online classrooms since the early days of online education of the 1990s – serve little pedagogical purpose.
These critics also often justify jettisoning online discussion boards by citing low student participation in them and the lack of meaningful student-to-student and student-to-instructor exchanges. However, these criticisms in large part improperly blame students and pedagogical platforms (online discussion boards) for the instructors’ failures in the design and delivery of online courses.
For some instructors, online discussion boards are time-consuming afterthoughts for a host of reasons. Most prominently, many current online instructors were trained in methods used in the in-person classroom.
Unfortunately, some instructors – even those with years of online teaching experience – do not fully appreciate how online classroom instruction differs from in-person teaching in several significant ways.
By seeking to recreate the main elements of in-person classrooms, some online instructors give little thought to the creation of engaging, relevant and pedagogically sound online discussion board activities. Thus, focusing on recreating in the online class the raison d’etre of the live classroom, including a strong focus on exams and research papers, has resulted in many flawed online discussion boards.
Online Discussion Boards Serve Valuable Functions in the Online Classroom
Jettisoning the online discussion boards, however, makes little sense for several reasons.
First, online discussion boards serve numerous functions inside an online course. Namely, an online course without discussion boards deprives students of the potential for rich student-to-student and instructor-to-student interactions that are the necessary for a wholesome online learning environment.
Second, the lack of interaction in the online discussion boards prevents students from learning from their peers and instructors in a transparent environment. Monitoring an instructor’s interactions with students can often provide them with hints and tips about the instructor’s expectations, as well as valuable subject matter instruction.
Third, the online discussion boards are a valuable tool to monitor student participation and attendance. They also provide students with a reason to engage in the class on a nearly daily basis. Additionally, the discussion boards give instructors numerous opportunities to provide feedback to students, thus creating a “feedback loop” essential for learning in the online environment.
Finally, an online course without robust and interactive discussion boards transforms the role of an instructor from an active participant in the class to a reader or grader of assignments and tests. Eliminating the discussion boards or mitigating an instructor’s participation in them might save an instructor time in the short term. But it does long-term damage to the educational experience in the online course, because it deprives students of valuable group instruction from their instructor.
The Lecture Model in Online Courses Creates More Problems than Solutions
Some instructors have advocated replacing mandatory online discussion boards with voluntary discussion boards or for assignment- and exam-based courses. Other instructors have called for replacing online discussion boards with recorded or live lectures. But these methods are not suitable replacements for online classes with pedagogically sound, mandatory online discussion boards.
Recently, I experimented with the elimination of mandatory, graded online discussion boards in a class I taught. Instead, students had to submit numerous written assignments and complete quizzes and exams. During the course, I noticed that only six out of the enrolled 25 students participated in the voluntary discussion boards.
The students who did participate in the optional discussion boards raised interesting points and engaged in several robust, free-flowing discussions. However, the class was seriously harmed by the lack of participation from the majority of students, who opted out of the discussion boards. The lack of involvement deprived the whole class of the potential pedagogical benefits from more robust participation by a more significant percentage of the class.
Also, many of the students who did not engage in the discussion boards often sent me emails inquiring about the requirements for assignments and deadlines, evidencing that they had also opted out of reading announcements and other course material. Simply put, without a requirement to check in on a regular basis in an online course, many of the poorer-performing students will disengage.
Disengagement Harms the Online Classroom Students Who Need Help the Most
This disengagement caused by the lack of online discussion boards or voluntary discussion boards harms the online classroom students who need help the most. Poorer-performing students can learn valuable lessons via exchanges with their peers and by monitoring student-to-student as well as instructor-to-student interaction. For example, mandatory participation compels students to check into the class regularly.
On the other hand, allowing students to opt out of discussion boards by not grading participation or counting such involvement as a small percentage of the final grade encourages non-participation. Opting out also negatively affects the poorest-performing students who would benefit the most from online discussion board participation. Thus, optional participation in discussion boards is not only pedagogically unsound; it is likely to harm student success and retention in the long run.
In Part II, I will examine the value, if any, of recreating the lecture-based, brick-and-mortar experience in the online classroom.
About the Author
James Barney is a Professor of Legal Studies in the School of Security and Global Studies. In addition to possessing a J.D., James possesses several master’s degrees, including one in U.S. foreign policy. He is currently completing his Ph.D. in History. James serves as one of the faculty advisors of the Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity as well as the Model United Nations Club and is the pre-law advisor at APU.
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