One Instructor's Ideas About Stimulating Activity

Having a Bulletin Board program as part of a class requires that students be required to use it.  Otherwise, they won't.

David Jaffee at the State University of New York, New Paltz has written a paper describing how he used an electronic conferencing system, Lotus Notes, as an integral part of his sociology class.  All of the text below the line is a series of quotes from David Jaffee's paper.

Courses should be developed in such a way that they maximize the opportunities for and encourage regularized and on-going interaction between teacher and students, among students, and between students and the learning environment.

....Once the students actually connected to the Lotus Notes server, and opened the introductory database, they were faced with an immediate set of tasks that involved connecting with the group and interacting with the instructor.  The students were asked to fill out a profile describing themselves....  This was shared with other members of the class...  This served the dual purpose of immediately initiating student-faculty interaction.... as well as providing a technical exercise that familiarized them with the communication system.

The importance of constant interaction with students cannot be overemphasized.  Prior studies and student evaluations of distance-learning projects (Hiltz 1994), indicate that responsiveness is viewed as one of the most important elements of a successful distance learning course.

MEDIATION - The Principle
In a conventional classroom, instructors have the ability to situate reading material, ideas, and concepts within a general theoretical framework through the lecture mode.  (In a distance learning course) the instructor must develop some alternative mediation strategies.

.... the importance of mediation as a means of intervention between the student and the subject matter, as a way to guide the learning process toward particular outcomes, and connect a body of knowledge with a student's cognitive framework.

MEDIATION - The Practice
A second form of mediation involved the regular practice of summarizing student discussion comments after they had been submitted.  ...this often resulted in further clarification by the students about their actual position, or the entry by another student who would take sides or try to reconcile the original arguments or comments.  In either case, mediation in group discussion provided the kind of instructor feedback that seemed to sustain student participation.

The notion of active learning suggests that students must do more than simply receive information and substantive material but also must engage and participate in activities and tasks that enhance comprehension, understanding, and knowledge.

...students were asked to formulate responses to discussion questions each week, submit short written assignments, and compose several extended essays.  The qestions and assignments posed to students were not designed to elicit a single correct answer, but were worded in such a way that the students had a great deal of latitude in developing an answer, response, or position.

....that the response to class discussion questions in the ALN course far exceeded -- in both quantity and quality -- anything I have experienced in a conventional classroom setting.

According to Hiltz (1994:23), collaborative learning "means that both teachers and learners are active participants in the learning process; knowledge is not something that is to be 'delivered' to students, but rather something that emerges from active dialogue among those who seek to understand and apply concepts and techniques."

When students were given the essay exams they were also encouraged to draw upon and consult the student-submitted items that were a permanent part of the database.  What distinguished the ALN class discussion from the conventional classroom mode was the quality of the student contributions and the fact that these items existed to be retrieved and consulted by other students.

A second collaborative learning procedure involved the sharing of some of the written assignments submitted by students.  These relatively short-answer assignments, scattered throughout the semester, required students to answer a series of questions...  When I shared the work, I asked students to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of the piece; to indicate whether the student made a clear presentation; whether the argument or answer was convincing; what suggestions the students might make to strengthen the piece.  While this exercise elicited some student response, it is clearly a major challenge to convince students that they could and should comment on the work of their fellow classmates.