National Family Literacy 2003 in Long Beach!


Setsuko Toyama

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ESL MiniConference Online!

Building Dynamic Discussions on
Incentive is the Key

Online learning or distance education is here to stay, and the big challenge for teachers is making their Internet courses--or online components of traditional courses--more interactive. Documents for students to download, lists of links to information resources, announcements: these are typical components of the online classroom. And, of course, there is the discussion, or bulletin, board.

Yet how effectively are these discussions implemented? Who monitors them? What incentives exist for students to participate? Is your discussion board really creating a classroom-like dynamic which makes Internet education more of a social experience?

A colleague of mine in the Special Education Department at Fort Hays State University, Dr. Ron Fahey, has come up with a nice way to enhance the use of the discussion board feature on Fort Hays State University, like many schools, has moved full-force into the use of technology and most courses include a component, while more and more of our classes are offered entirely online through Blackboard, via FHSU's Virtual College ( Two examples are a course titled "Teaching Young Hispanic Children with Special Needs," to be taught online in spring 2003 by Rudy Bustos, adjunct professor of special education, and a course in educational technology, by Dr. Fahey.

When Dr. Fahey's ITV (interactive television) students make class presentations, they must at the same time submit questions to the class discussion board on and then monitor the discussions and respond to every comment posted by their classmates during the two weeks following their presentation. With these kinds of exchanges going on during the entire semester, Dr. Fahey reported more than 60,000 student hits on the site for his Exceptionalities course in spring 2002.

I have implemented a version of Dr. Fahey's approach as part of the final student projects for ESOL Linguistics, a course I teach via ITV to teachers in Hays, Dodge City, Colby and Pratt who are working towards their Kansas endorsement in ESOL. The final projects are done in small groups, with each group researching an L1/L2 contrast from a perspective such as morphology, phonology, syntax, semantics or discourse. Each group makes a class presentation via ITV, and is responsible for posting three discussion questions on our Blackboard site at least 24 hours prior to the presentation. After their presentation, the group is responsible for monitoring and responding to comments on the discussion threads they have posted, for the next week.

The final project is divided into a group grade and an individual grade. The individual grade comes from either a term paper or a PowerPoint giving the student's unique perspective on the group's research. The group grade is based on a number of factors, including 20% from discussion board activity. This 20% includes the discussions generated and monitored by the group members, as well as each individual member's participation on the discussion threads from the other groups. Over the Thanksgiving break, there have been more than 100 postings on our Blackboard discussion board in response to questions from the first three groups who presented last Tuesday.

The comments range from short and sweet to long and meditative. Participants are getting much more out of this class discussion than would be possible in a traditional classroom setting.

Story by Robb Scott

2002 ESL MiniConference Online