Kairos 13.2: Praxis - Productive Mess: Course Setup

Course Setup

From Prompts to Forum Roles

The pilot syllabus united four first-year composition courses in one inter-class, asynchronous Drupal forum where students discussed shared readings. The readings, which covered several thousand years on the purpose of the university, were collected in a coursepack assembled by the instructors. After completing a week's reading, students converged on the forum to investigate concepts from the readings and relate these ideas to their own educational experiences. Each student contributed one weekly 250-word post that played a role in larger conversations about the contemporary university. In this digital space, we hoped to see students developing perspective on the course texts by writing with and anticipating responses from physically unknown but intellectually equal participants.

The classes began independently at the start of the semester to ensure students were not overwhelmed by simultaneous new technological, social, and intellectual experiences. Each course had an individual Drupal site where students learned to use the software and began to discuss the readings in forums. For the first few weeks, the instructor provided specific prompts to help students draw connections between readings. In this example, students are asked to apply the rhetorical lens of Jim Corder, George Lakoff, or Kenneth Burke to Plato's allegory of the cave:

Sample Prompt

Here's the question--how does Plato's metaphor of the cave work from the perspective of either Corder, Lakoff or Burke? I am asking you to analyze Plato through the critical lens of one of these writers.

To do this, you will first need to address 1) what is the metaphor of the cave? 2) why is it so significant? How does it narrativize education, frame education, or identify education?

Finally, you need to tie specific passages from Corder, Lakoff, and Burke to your analysis of specific passages of Plato. The goal of this assignment is to start putting the language and methods we're discussing in class to work in your reading and responses.

These prompts were designed to give students some practice in formulating sophisticated and integrated responses to course readings and fellow students. The prompt also establishes the habits of successful responses, including a focus on specific aspects of the readings, a reference to larger course discussions, direct references to key passages, and a discussion on the significance of the issue. Once students became comfortable with these habits, the instructor prompts were replaced with a more dialogic approach where students devised their own topics and responses to the readings. The move away from prompts positioned the students as collaborators rather than respondents to the discussion.

To further encourage online collaboration, the instructors designed forum roles that provided flexible structure to the discussions. Launch posts, put up Mondays, asked students to start a discussion, Query posts, put up on Tuesdays, had other students ask a question or pose an issue about that launch, Extension posts, added on Wednesdays, required some minor outside research to elaborate the discussion, and Connection posts, which bookended the conversation on Friday, attempted to draw connections not conclusions from the resulting discussion. Students were given chances to practice these roles on their individual course sites before performing them on the interclass forum.

The complete description of each role is provided below:

Launch Posts

This is the group that gets it all going. Working with a specific text, and even, perhaps, a specific passage, these individuals will start the discussion by either summarizing a reading or highlighting an important aspect of a reading, and arguing for its importance in our understanding of the university (i.e., Plato's views on the nature of knowledge clearly influence the way many instructors teach and structure their classes; this is at it should be, etc...).

Query Posts

This group will respond directly to the launch posts, asking questions of either their summaries (and thus, their interpretations), qualifying their argument in some way, or even disagreeing with the importance of the reading in our understanding of the university (i.e., I find Plato's view on knowledge to be problematic. [quote]. I agree that many faculty are clearly influenced by this way of thinking, but perhaps we might consider other views, such as...).

Extension Posts

Students creating extension posts will, obviously, extend the conversations developed through the launch and query posts. These students can add their own views on the subject in relation to previous posts, they can moderate in a forum thread where students hold opposite views on the meaning or relavance of a reading, or they can continue a line of thinking started in a previous post (i.e., So we are at least in agreement on the influence of Platonic thinking on the university, as we see it. Following the lead of the query post, we might look at the ways in which Cicero views knowledge and what type of university we might derive from him, etc...).

Connection Post

This might be, by far, one of the more challenging roles. That is why it is suggested that these students monitor the forums throughout the week to see how various threads are developing, rather than waiting until the end of the week to survey all that has been said. Students creating connection posts are thus encouraged to post either Thursday or Friday. These students can connect different threads together, they can connect a discussion thread from one week to a previous week's discussion. Students can also make connections to outside sources (current events, class experiences, etc.) or make connections to a reading from earlier in the semester.

During the month on the interclass forum, each class spent a week performing one of the above roles. These roles, which approximate common argumentative moves in academic discussion, laid the groundwork for a dynamic conversation (because every member of one physical class performed the same role, the context demanded students seek out students in other classes as discussion participants). The forum roles were designed to address the concern that less structured conversation in a digital environment may not provide the impetus for students to engage one another—the mere requirement to post may result in several monologues instead of interactive dialogues. Although the forum roles represent some teacher intrusion into a student-centered space, the roles were designed with enough flexibility to allow student invention in the manifestation of these roles; as the course discussion revealed, there are many ways to approach each role.

Another source of flexibility arose through the complex decisions students made about what to write and where and how to insert themselves into the conversation. Students writing launch posts were responsible for selecting a relevant and productive aspect of the reading likely to generate response. Students adding query, extension, and connection posts then had to read several developing discussions and make strategic choices about where to play their role. Through this process, some conversations grew into 5, 10, or 15 posts while many others never developed far past the initial launch post.

Part of this project's goal was to determine why some conversations thrived while others languished. Our hypothesis was that Howard Reingold's notion of reputation systems would answer this question. Reingold argues that credibility assigned to users and evaluations of content quality drive the exchange of goods and ideas on the internet. Reputation systems take many forms—well-ranked sellers do more business on eBay while high-ranked posts are elevated on Slashdot and Amazon.com.

On the Drupal forums, we hoped that reputation systems would manifest in two ways: first, that students would locate posters whose contributions were consistently insightful and good launching points for their own ideas, and second, that the discussions students found particularly dynamic or helpful would attract more attention and continue to thrive. While promoting an element of competition may make teachers nervous, reputation systems see competition as part of audience-centered writing and central to a lived experience with the complexities of ethos. Reputation systems can remain student centered by allowing students, not teachers, to evaluate the quality of the writing. Additionally, the goal is not for a handful of students to receive the approval of the class for providing the best answer but for each student to find a few others they consistently reference and engage with for insight. We hoped students would consider their place in the conversation and how their own ethos contributed to their reputation on the site.