Joe Ugoretz has a provocative piece out in Innovate regarding the importance of letting students start worthwhile tangents in online class discussions. (Registration required.) It would be easy to flatten his argument into a “guide on the side” bromide, but I think Joe provides both more meat and more subtlety than that. To begin with, he addresses head-on the fundamental tension between covering the planned content and opening up room for student exploration:
It is a moment every classroom teacher has encountered: In the middle of a class discussion of a text, a concept, a method-some element of the course material that must be covered-a student raises an unrelated (or only tangentially related) point that threatens to derail the entire discussion. The new point may be fascinating or intriguing, or so appealing as a line of thought or discussion that it is difficult to ignore. In fact, this unrelated point is generally more fascinating than the required course material to the student who brings it up. But there are the pressures of time and scheduling, and of covering that required material. Two roads (or more-sometimes as many roads as there are students in the room) diverge, and in order to achieve our goals for the course, we have to choose one of them. The one we choose is rarely the “road less traveled by,” the digression that we necessarily neglect.
This choice reflects instructor training, evaluations of instructional design, and teachers’ own goals and preferences in terms of classroom management, all of which focus on controlling or limiting digression
The notion that much of the discipline that we call pedagogy focuses on “controlling or limiting digression” was startling enough to stop me dead in my tracks. But of course it is true, as it would be true for any discipline designed to promote goal-directed group activities. The questions that we struggle with as teachers are (a) what counts as a “digression” and (b) what educational value can be gained by permitting or even actively cultivating certain kinds of digressions. One of the things we potentially gain from student-initiated digression, ironically enough, is increased time-on-task (which is one of the most accurate predictors or success in distance learning):
On an end-of-semester anonymous survey administered in my online Science Fiction class (Exhibit 5), students further reported that their learning in asynchronous discussions permeated their conversations with friends and family and influenced their research and ideas in other classes (Exhibit 6). In response to the questions, “When you read your classmates’ posts on the Discussion Boards, what did you gain? When you responded to them, and they responded to you, did you think about those responses when you were not online?” one student commented, “I definitely did think about the responses on the board when I was not on line. There were times when certain things happened and I would find myself saying ‘oh, this is what such and such was talking about.’” Another student noted, “The Discussion Board made me think more about the subject, and oftentimes I brought it up around the dinner table, or discussed it with my friends or my sixteen-year-old son.”
To my mind, this is one of the great goals of distance learning, i.e., to break down the walls of the classroom and have the students bring the learning experience out into the world with them between class sessions. Joe points out that the educational scaffolding provided by student conversation (whether in an online class or face-to-face) can achieve that end. Students will often spontaneously seek this kind of scaffolding out in class conversation if we don’t get in their way. We can further aid in cultivating this kind of activity by (a) allowing time for it, (b) posting less when the students are on a roll, (c) writing discussion prompts that encourage wide-ranging student “interrogation of the material”, and (d) making sure the physical layout of the discussion areas relative to the course content makes it clear that there is room for students to spontaneously contribute.