Teaching: Flipping the Baby?

Flipping a course is a radical step for anyone who has relied on the traditional lecture approach for years -- actually, for decades. Because I have taught a few online and hybrid course, moving lectures online is not a concern. What is troubling me is the prospect of giving up a somewhat successful (albeit idiosyncratic) instructional tool I’ve relied on over the past few years -- the “Discussion Forum,” or “DFs”.
I developed my own DF approach a few years back when the Blackboard platform was adopted at UNH. The Discussion Board is a common feature of Blackboard, and there are many ways to use it; in a sense my own approach does nothing more than take the idea of discussion threads in a certain direction. Despite my somewhat cynical view of student willingness to prepare for classes (see previous post), I’ve rarely doubted their willingness to express their opinions on a range of matters -- some of them political, and therefore possibly relevant to the course. By configuring the Discussion Board as a venue for focussed Discussion Forums I’ve been able to offset in-class passivity with online activity.

The concept is simple, and I use it in graduate seminars as well as undergrad courses. In large sections I will typically use Groups -- trying to get somewhere around 6-10 students per group depending on the size of the class (7 students seems like the perfect size). After an initial run (an “introduce yourself” DF), I post some news item, podcast, video, etc. relevant to the topic at hand and require students to comment or react to the item. (For example, in my Media and Politics course this past semester we were about to cover “feeding frenzy” in class when the controversy over the
Rolling Stone article about the alleged gang rape on the University of Virginia campus became headline news, generating a number of interesting articles and podcast commentaries for me to use as the basis for a DF. The response from students was immediate and the exchanges that followed in all five groups (it was a class of 35 students) was incredibly interesting and insightful -- and turned out to be a damn good assessment of how well they had grasped lots of the material we covered in class.)

Once a DF assignment goes “live”, the student’s initial posted comment becomes the “ticket” into the forum itself and provides the raw material upon which any number of “threads” can be developed. Students understand that their initial posts amount to the minimum expectation and will not suffice if they want to get a good “score” on that particular DF. They are expected to read the posts of others and engage in a give and take, relying on the initial posts as threads or establishing new threads as needed. My instructions are few -- mainly “rules of the road” regarding basic expectations about writing and “playing nice” -- and I avoid intruding in the exchanges unless things get a bit out of hand. Generally, my role is monitoring the posts and (if there is not enough activity) sending out a message that calls for more engagement.

I try to get at least 12 DFs going over the term, giving two weeks or so for each with some overlap. Each is scored on a basic 5 point scale, with 5s and 4s reserved for solid or exceptional performance in the overall exchange. After a couple of iterations, students soon understand that posting “early and often” is the key to at least minimal success on this assignment. Those who feel their initial post is all they need to do are soon disabused of that when they receive a score of 2 or 3, depending on the quality of that post. Those who fail to participate in any particular DF are penalized under my scheme, receiving -5 points rather than 0, but since I take only the top 10 scores (or the 12) at the end of the semester, missing a particular DF or two will not be that devastating. Since the DF assignment weighs in at somewhere between 35% to 50% of the course grade, students missing three or four DFs are probably looking at low C grades -- or worse -- for the semester.

Each semester I tweak the DF assignment, and at the end of each term I come away convinced that this particular instructional tool really works.

So what’s my problem?

It comes down to whether the DF tool can be integrated into the flipped course format, or must I toss this baby out with the bathwater? In a sense, by flipping the course I am attempting to shift the interaction that takes place in the DF to the classroom itself, and I can see all sorts of benefits from that change. At the same time, no matter how I approach each class session I will not get the kind of I substantive interactions my DF formats generates -- especially among some students who are not inclined to engage in the classroom setting. Countering that is the question of whether I will be demanding too much of students outside the classroom by putting increased pressure to keep up on the DFs in addition to the preparation work that is so central to the flipped format.

One solution is to use theDF group structures as the basis for in class activities -- in a sense, creating an overlapping arrangement where the DFs are extended through in class sessions, and vice versa. This is another idea I will be playing with in these blog posts over the coming days….

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