A colleague here who is monitoring the Sakai discussion groups sent me something about their development of a discussion tool. It is based on the Rotisserie tool from the H2O Project. The teaching idea is to have timed release of posts to a discussion board. In the more traditional setup, students who post first on a general topic have a tendency of blocking out more thoughtful posts of students who might post later, because all the good ideas are "used up." So the Rotisserie tool accepts the student's submission but does not publish it to the discussion area till a pre-specified time, so that each student is in a symmetric position with regard to the rest of the class when composing the post.
Of course there is more than one way to skin a cat. One can use the paragraph question type in a survey, have all the students respond to that, collate the student responses and publish those to the discussion area. Then the follow up conversation can be based on those collated posts.
The two approaches produce similar but not identical results. For example, discussion boards are usually set up in a way where the identify of the poster is given. With surveys, the responses to the questions are typically anonymous. (Most of the survey tools I'm aware of in CMS systems track who completed the survey, but that tracking happens in a different area than where the survey responses are recorded.) One can envision that the ensuing discussion will vary depending on whether the original posts have the identity of their authors or not.
The issue I want to get at here, and I've argued for something similar with respect to the students' computer literacy, is that it is crazy to design discussion tools (or any other tool for that matter) to take account of such a nuance unless we know not just that it matters but rather that the difference is perceived as critical and by a lot of instructors. Otherwise our efforts at "cool pedagogy" will miss the forest for the trees. I think we need to develop in our instructors the ability to see what the technology does and then pull from that how best to utilize it in their teaching. That pulling might very well be highly idiosyncratic - there is a lot of variety in what we teach and how we go about teaching, but those indiosyncracies are handled by the instructors ability to adapt, not by the software itself. Programmer/designer types may have the fantasy of the other approach, where it is the software that accomodates (the one the instructors love approach) . But if I'm right about the variation in possible use, then designing for a niche is not a scalable approach. Getting the instructors to adapt successfully to the environment they are presented with (the love the one your with approach) does scale. But beyond that it puts emphasis on the instructor seeing the possibilities, which is where it should be. No matter how well the software is designed, if the instructors are wooden about using it there results will be underwhelming.
We have the following set of issues with discussion boards, in general. Students don't know who they are writing for - the instructor, their classmates, or themselves. Where in some cases the writing may seem a natural component of the course, in other cases it seems forced and not integrated in. We've had focus groups and survey results where students have commented that discussions should be made available as an option, but discussions should not be a requirement. In smaller seminar classes where there is substantial face to face discussion and good class participation, there may be a role for the discussion boards to extend that in class discussion, but if students have other substantive written work to be completed for the course then perhaps the discussion board is perceived as superfluous. In larger lecture classes where the students don't speak up too much in class, there is the issue of whether an ensemble online discussion area can build a sufficient sense of community that students feel the need to make good responses to their classmates. The volume of posts may intimidate and if the quality of those posts is low, because the students are reacting to the participation requirement in a passive manner, then the students won't feel engaged.
The resolution of these issues is probably best not left to "making the technology" better. Let me suggest some alternatives. These all fall within the adaptation approach. They are meant to be illustrative, not exhaustive.
For the first couple of weeks of the course, the instructor should make "diary like" posts akin to the posts in this blog and the students should be asked to react to those. Part of this is to engage the class in the issues the instructors feels are important and for the students to see that the instructor has personalized those issues to some degree. This is to draw the students in and encourage them to give serious reactions. But this is also to give students experiential knowledge for the next part. Over the next few weeks have individual or small group areas where the students make their own diary like posts. Make it clear to them that you the instructor can browse those posts. Perhaps there is some in class discussion based on some of those postings or some other way for those to become part of the class work. Then, still a few weeks later, have the students select from their set of posts and have the selection posted in a common area. Then have other students react to those. Make the reaction part of the obligation of the course, but note that students were "trained" to do this by the first part of the course where they responded to the instructor's diary posts. There are many possible variations on this theme. They key points are that the use evolves during the course and that the subsequent use depends in a deliberate way on the prior use.
An entirely different approach is to stick with the more traditional way of having online discussions with perhaps a two post requirement each week, perhaps where the students have different roles that they play - initiators, reactors, reactors to the reactors - and those rotate so over the course of the semester the students play each role several times, but then change what the instructor does. Instead of having the instructor participating in the discussion directly, which can create an imbalance, the instructor should lurk. The instructor's role is to coach the students in their postings. This would be done by selecting a few students each week and writing those students selected email about their contributions to the discussion - where they've done well and what they might do to do better. Perhaps over the course of the term the instructor might go through the whole class a couple of times. One of the things that the instructor should be making clear at the outset is that the instructor is after an increase in the maturity of the writing as the semester progresses. The students should get the sense that the instructor is on their side, helping them to learn. This should help to change the perspective of the students and get them to think of the discussion areas as places for expression rather than to create the self-conscious feeling of being onstage.
Still another approach is to treat the discussion area as a newsgroup, the way engineering classes do. It is a help area for collective problem solving to whatever the other work gets done in the class. Since instant messaging has become such a cultural phenomenon, the newsgroup approach needs some kicker to make it effective. One of the more obvious ones is that in a large class the individual student's circle may be small and by posting to the discussion area the student can tap into the population of the entire class. The person who comes up with the helpful suggestion might now be within the student's circle. Or, TAs and instructors might regularly participate in the group. The newsgroup then becomes a way to access their expertise. It is a substitute for office hours with the addition that the lurkers can benefit. Lurking can be good - it is a way to learn from the disucssion of others - so long as the students feel welcome to participate when they have their own issues that need resolution.
Do we need three different technologies for these different uses? I hope not. Moreover, since I'm quite sure this list isn't even close to being exhaustive, I'd rather not see modifications in the software along these lines. I'd much prefer to see the instructors think about their teaching this way and choose to implement accordingly (based on their own prior experience). Some instructors do think about their teaching in this reflective manner and come to use the software in an innovative way. My issue is what else do I and the folks who work for me need to do to make that type of reflection more commonplace.