Discussion Boards in the Seminar Classroom

by John Ottenhoff, Associated Colleges of the Midwest

Instructor Name:

John Ottenhoff

Course Title:

Eng 354: Shakespeare


Alma College

What is the overall aim of the course?:
This is an upper-level Shakespeare seminar that aims to help students “become better readers, thinkers, and writers” as they shape their “own interpretations and encounter a range of critical opinions about Shakespeare’s plays.” I explicity use online discussion boards to emphasize building genuine discussion and understanding that is responsive to Shakespeare’s authorship yet open ended and constructivist.
Course design and scope of the project:
I had 8 students in this semester-long course, most of whom were English majors or minors. We met twice a week (80 minutes per session) for 14 weeks, reading one play per week. All students had taken at least two courses in literature; a few had taken my department’s required course in theory.
Incorporation of Technology:
Before our first Tuesday discussion about the play, students were expected to post to our Blackboard discussion board an initial exploratory comment, “one that poses questions and first reactions.” By the end of the week, students were expected to contribute a “follow-up posting” that commented or reflected on classroom discussion. “Use this posting to continue our in-class discussions, write what you didn’t get to say in class, react to the views of your classmates and professors, offer links to helpful articles and websites.” I periodically reviewed the online discussion and assigned general grades (check, check plus); the online discussion, as outlined in the course syllabus, constituted roughly 15% of the final grade.

Lessons Learned:
Discussion Boards have become ubiquitous and are in some respects a “low-tech” application these days. The scholarly literature has begun to accumulate, but I don’t think we understand very well how they can function in seminar classes, particularly in the ways they shape students’ sense of authority. I have made these conclusions:

  1. My students’ discussion shows a rich pattern of interaction that encompasses a wide variety of interpretive and authoritative modes. At the very least, we should be skeptical about any blanket generalizations about what online discussions cannot do or what kind of writing they make possible.
  2. Excellent postings for the online discussion—at least in terms of the values I created for my class—most of all show a rich variety of discourse modes and patterns of interaction.  The students who showed most flexibility with these forms of discussion were the most successful students in the class in terms of final grades and the degree to which they established strong, authoritative voices in the classroom.
  3. The online discussion helped considerably in changing patterns of authority and developing multiple kinds of authority. Students found a variety of methods for sharing knowledge and shaping discussion; my lack of presence in the online discussion cleared space for their voices and enabled a form of “intellectual play” that is difficult to create in even the most egalitarian classroom. That strength of student voices was, in turn, brought into the classroom through citation and carryover of the online discussion.

Work with colleagues from the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning has revealed some consistency of these findings in other disciplines and contexts.

References, links:
You can find a “snapshot” of this work on the CASTL website.
Measured Results:
My work on the CASTL website documents my efforts to code the online discussion threads, and I have followed up on this work elsewhere. In addition, I conducted some focus groups with my class and had them fill out a brief questionnaire. Students also contributed discussion about the course goals and effectiveness through a “meta” thread on the discussion board.

My results at this stage mostly focus on documenting what happens in student discussions online, especially when part of a strong discussion-focused seminar class. I’m interested in further discussion and exploration of such settings.