Shaping a Culture of Conversation: The Discussion Board and Beyond

by Edward J. Gallagher, Lehigh University. Edward J. Gallagher is Professor of English and former Lehigh Lab Fellow at Lehigh University. Five of his web sites have recently been published under the general title of History on Trial by the Lehigh University Digital Library. He is currently exploring the educational uses of Second Life.

Originally Posted January 7th, 2009

The Backstory: Discovering Community1
I can still remember the exhilaration with which in 1997 (before Blackboard and WebCT) I approached my first discussion board as part of the Lehigh English Department’s participation in the groundbreaking Epiphany Project. I had long used such methods as “reaction cards” to engage student involvement, so the move to discussion boards was a natural evolution. But evolution to what? Today the discussion board signifies class community for me. But that was not overtly so in the beginning. Influenced greatly by a seminal College English article by Marilyn Cooper and Cindy Selfe (I had attended Selfe’s Computers in the Writing-Intensive Classroom workshop at Michigan Tech in 1996), my statement of goals for the Epiphany project discussion board had a “radical” tinge to it, with rather stentorian claims about a free space for students and liberation from the teacher’s agenda or ideas. But that approach was a mistake. It led to using the discussion board as a bulletin board (I am tempted to say soap box) on which students posted individual, discrete messages that others were supposed to read but, by and large, didn’t, at least with much palpable impact. There was no “epiphany” that I can remember, just a gradual awareness over time as VKP approached that there was no meaningful “discussion” on my discussion board and that, without interaction, I was not fully tapping the potential of the new technology.

That potential was to create a community of learners, and gradually “community” replaced rebellion and resistance–that is, the cultivation of the individual voice–as my signifier. In fact, the most important thing I discovered (or uncovered) through this VKP project on discussion boards was the depths of my passion for community, a passion that has quite visibly informed my pedagogy ever since, especially in a second experimental course that I will talk about later. Achieving community is the continual worry in the personal blog that I kept during the VKP course–indeed, causing two serious blow-outs with the students midway through. In my VKP final report I frankly admitted that I sometimes felt “obsessed with the need for community,” felt embarrassed by the ranting way I talked about it, but felt more and more “the pressing need for people to talk with each other, to get beyond difference, to work together, to get along.” The “Improving the Discussion Board” VKP project, then, would in reality be about the creation of community.

Continue reading