Archive for September, 2010

Support for communication: mailing list vs. forum

September 19, 2010 2 comments

I probably miss some fundamental understanding at the infrastructure level about ‘forum’ and ‘mailing list’. This is also caused by various technologies used in higher education, whether proprietary, open, or free, each with its own nomenclature for online communication means. I cannot emphasize enough the extent of confusion faculty and students alike have (myself included), when it comes to mailing list, forum, listserv, groupserv, discussion board, message board, thread, post, group email, and so on. Many times there is also a formal and sometimes lengthy process in setting up online communication that’s course specific and does not quite fall under the tools of the course management system the institution uses. This is especially aggravated when communication occurs across courses or with course outsiders (experts, invited speakers, community partners, etc.), who cannot apply for accounts with that college or university.

My way of providing some kind of asynchronous online group communication (when I don’t have staff or computing resources to build and maintain a supporting infrastructure) is to use Google Sites, Google Groups, or WordPress (thank goodness they offer free hosting!). Google Groups, for example, is my means of setting up a course mailing list (haven’t thought of calling it forum), to which all students who register for that course subscribe. The purpose of it is to keep all outside-class conversation in one place. Class participants use either email or the mailing list site to ask and reply; they use the site to search, check on members, and share work to some extent (by uploading files or setting up pages). I deliberately stay away from imposing any rules about how to use the tool. The focus is on the activity itself rather than what’s convenient and in which situation and for whom.

So here is my basic question, which comes before ‘compare and contrast’ the two: what’s a mailing list and what’s a forum? I’m interested in understanding the concepts rather than software package, implementation, or administration of these services. I won’t be surprised to find out that in fact current technologies permit a mailing list to offer forum features and allow a forum to do mailing list jobs.

In the end (which is relative, of course, like all things :-), we might find ourselves in the situation of clarifying a bit the taxonomy of concepts that describe asynchronous online group communication.

Categories: education Tags: ,

How to grade student participation?

September 15, 2010 7 comments

Student participation in and outside class is wonderful. How do teachers make it happen? Persuasion alone does not do it. “If it’s not graded, it does not count” is the mantra on which teachers and students alike fully agree. Carving out a percentage slice of the final grade and calling it “participation” does not do it either. Who’s measuring it? Based on what criteria? When and how does it happen? How is it observed and by whom? If a measuring stick is waved at students every class, how genuinely do they participate? As a social science colleague and friend put it, “welcome to the hard questions of what others call soft sciences!”

So the question boils down to “to grade or not to grade.” I’ve been of the principle that beliefs, attitudes, and personally held values are not quite grade-able. And not in the scope of my expertise. Therefore, I have been tweaking the syllabus and course requirements (what students are asked to do) with the hope that even if I don’t measure participation the lack of it is clearly affecting learning outcomes measured by other activities, such as doing assignments, working in teams, or presenting projects. I haven’t seen, however, a real improvement in student engagement with the course material and with peers for the purpose of learning.

The decision to quantify participation this semester is based on several observations.

  1. Most of my students use self-evaluation and self-reflection responsibly to share with me beliefs and experiences they had with doing assigned work (that’s graded).
  2. Most of my students find pair programming very useful.
  3. Some of my students make important contributions to the mailing list.
  4. A few students volunteer important questions and answers in class.
  5. A few students come prepared every single class: solid grasp of the reading assignment and high quality homework assignment submitted on time.

These observations have helped me craft the following strategy to assess student participation:

  • Students use a rubric to evaluate their partner’s collaboration and include that score in the the self-evaluation that accompanies their assignment submissions.
  • Students are asked to contribute at least two posts to the mailing list: asking an important question and formulating an important answer.
  • I am very explicit about instances of student participation I see in class. For example, “Laura, this is a complete and correct answer, and an important one. Your participation counts!”. Or, “Chris, this is a very important question. In a couple of weeks we’ll revisit it, because we’ll have the knowledge and skills to tackle it. Your participation counts!”
  • I am very explicit about instances of student participation outside class (that is, traffic on the mailing list). For example, “Aaron, this is the most influential post made this week. Your participation counts!”

Data from these various sources is then converted into a weekly score I attach to each student’s self-evaluation when I validate how they score the quality of their work and the collaboration with their partner.