In most online courses at universities, tutors set a minimum number of discussion forum posts per week. For example, students must contribute at least twice in each discussion to receive credit for participation. The assessment of the number of contributions is deemed necessary to ensure students’ participation.
This is bad practice in an adult learning environment. Just imagine if we would run a face-to-face workshop with a flipchart holder on the side and the facilitator would start by saying “you must speak at least twice every time we have a discussion about a theme – I’ll tick it off here”. I’d be horrified and certainly not inspired to say anything at all.
We don’t use any of these off-putting methods in our eWorkshops which aren’t graded either. This means that we have to work much harder to design learning tasks that give learners plenty opportunity to want to write multiple times. We never say a word about how often participants should engage, yet participation rates are typically 80-90%. That’s achieved by great task design and excellent e-facilitation. People simply don’t want to miss out.
I explore the task design issues a little deeper in this blog post of a while back: “Post once, reply twice”: uninspiring online discussion boards and what to do about them.
This is where I believe universities can learn from other sectors. They should have a hard look at all instances where their assessment requirements wouldn’t work without the threat of grades. They also need to invest more in engaging and inspiring learning design. Furthermore, they should reflect on how they make every written ‘evidence’ in the forums assessable – this gets in the way of providing an online space that could potentially replicate lively debates which are typical of a good face-to-face session.
A lost opportunity… and one of the reasons so many people dislike online learning in universities.