**I’m teaching a new class this semester: Human Behavior in the Social Environment: Groups, Organizations, and Communities, and it has prompted a lot of thinking about group development, in particular, and some new ideas about organizational impact on practice, too. This week, I’ll have a few posts about some of the topics that I’m raising in this class, tying in some of the reading I’ve been doing around these ideas. I (and, I’m sure, my students!) would appreciate any of your feedback, too.
One of the challenges of any instructor, I think, is how to solicit the full participation of all students in a way that supports the learning of other students as well. For social work instructors, where most of our classes are very participatory, and where a big part of our, rather unspoken, responsibility is to assess the degree to which a student is not only intellectually but also ethically congruent with our profession, finding this instructional ‘sweet spot’ is even more critical. We tell students that it’s not enough just to be present; they have to participate. Yet we (or, at least, I) struggle to quantify ‘participation’, and, even more importantly, to qualify it–how do I honor each student’s contribution, respect differences in language abilities and speed of processing, preserve confidentiality, and deal with conflicts among students (and student comments that challenge my own understanding of our professional value base)? On the fly, yet with a record that will later allow me to assign a point value to these interactions?
Over the winter break, in preparation for this class, which is a bit larger than some of my Master-level courses and also uses quite a bit of group work, I did some reading on pedagogy and also on group interactions and group work for learning. In light of those insights, and in preparation for class next fall, which will be half online, I am incorporating the use of online discussion boards, internal to our class, into the class participation grade. It has been mostly a success so far, largely because I was able to learn from the experiences of other instructors who have forged these paths before, although I’m still experimenting with ways to address some of the challenges.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I’m finding that the new medium doesn’t really change many of the dynamics and patterns of student participation; it mainly moves them to a new venue. At this midpoint in the semester (happy spring break, everyone!), here are my admittedly unscientific reflections on the limits and potential of discussion boards in social work education.
Students and instructors using discussion boards, in social work or elsewhere in higher education, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences. How can we make this technology maximally useful? How can it complement classwork? And what do you see as its dangers?