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Volume 10, Number 5: April 2004

Quality Online Discussions in Women’s Studies Classes
(or in Any Class)

by Tammy Kempfert,
Teaching with Technology Today


Elsewhere in this edition of TTT, Harvard scholar Pamela Whitehouse makes a case for using technology to advance the goals of women's studies programs. Female students especially, she writes, need to acquire technical expertise, preparing them not only to stake their claims in ever more competitive global markets but also to lead activist lives in the age of information. Further, feminist pedagogy calls for course designs that prioritize student learning: it advocates methods that meet the differing needs of learners, promote collaboration among classmates, and encourage them to make personal connections to the course content.

Whitehouse's research indicates that web-based technologies, used in shrewd combination with traditional teaching methods, can facilitate student engagement in these ways. And women's studies faculty at University of Wisconsin schools have begun to learn how.

Participants at UW System's recent workshop, "Incorporating Hybrid Web-Enhanced Course Development into Women's Studies Pedagogy," became members of an online environment established expressly for them. This allowed them to try out the UW's new common e-learning system, Desire2Learn (D2L)--before, during, and after the workshop. The password-protected D2L website provided a place for participants to introduce themselves to each other, access workshop materials, complete tutorials on the technology, and perhaps most significantly, hold online discussions. The site has been made available to them for the entire spring semester.

Nancy Chick, a veteran distance educator from UW-Barron County, facilitated a planned online discussion among participants prior to the workshop. Chick, an assistant professor who teaches English and women's studies, led the pre-workshop discussion as she would have led a discussion in one of her undergraduate online courses. For workshop participants, this offered a rare opportunity to experience a well-crafted D2L course from a student perspective. Later, at the face-to-face workshop in Madison, participants reflected on the process. Professor Chick was there as well, to provide advice and commentary for her colleagues.

Chick told the group of feminist educators that good online discussions will not likely happen accidentally. Rather, fruitful discussions require a teacher's thoughtful preparation and ongoing attention. "The
initial setup is immense," she says. She stresses the importance of modeling good discussion behaviors so that students clearly understand the expectations. For her online classes, Chick posts mock discussions, with a prompt and three or more representative responses of varying quality. She critiques these responses to show students the strengths and weaknesses of each. A strong advocate of discussion rubrics, Chick is careful to clarify "what an 'excellent' discussion posting does, what an 'okay' discussion posting does, and what a 'poor' discussion posting does," with the best of them exhibiting well-developed thoughts, relevance to other posts, and references to the readings. Along with the rubric, Chick gives students a schedule of their weekly online activities. This helps students navigate the online environment, reminding them when and where to check for new assignments, deadlines, comments from their classmates, and other announcements. It helps too when teachers count online participation as a significant portion of the final grade, she says.

Chick tries to design virtual class discussions that imitate the kinds of conversations held in face-to-face classrooms. One section of the D2L environment, which she calls the "Hallway," provides an arena in
which students can discuss any topic they want. For the women's studies workshop, she writes, hallway talk “doesn't have to relate to this workshop--it's like talking in the hallway on campus. Get to know each
other, chat about your new favorite movie, or exchange recipes. Enjoy!" Another section, called "Ask the Class," allowed participants to pose questions about the readings, the technology or the workshop logistics. Finally, the main forum area was the place for addressing Chick's prompts regarding two assigned readings: Whitehouse's "Women's Studies Online: An Oxymoron?” (posted in this issue of TTT) and Carolyn Shrewsbury's "What is Feminist Pedagogy?" Here participants addressed specific questions raised by Chick.

A typical week in one of Chick’s online classes would include two rounds of discussion. In each round, she posts a question or questions to which students are expected to respond. She says, “I generally think
of Round One as the time when students put forth initial applications of concepts, interpretations, [and] basic ideas to lay the groundwork for further discussion in Round Two.” Because the second round of discussion often involves more complicated concepts, she advises students to give themselves more time to complete it. She also requires students to post responses to both rounds.

At the outset, teachers will need to be more involved in the forum, offering constructive feedback where necessary. However, Chick wants the discussions to be student-led, so she intervenes only to sort out
misunderstandings or to repeat her expectations for student responses. “And sometimes I just can’t stand it, and I have to write them to say, ‘Wow! You’ve really done well here!’” she says.

Does all this interaction mean countless hours at the computer for teachers and students? Chick says no. Apart from the extra time it takes to plan an online course, she does not believe she spends substantially more time responding to her online students than she does her on-campus classes. Further, she says that semester after semester, her online students submit impressive work that demonstrates they connect with course content and learn from each other. Having experienced a portion of a Nancy Chick course firsthand, participants in the Madison workshop hope to realize similar success on their own campuses.