Office Hours with the Prof 9/26 “Taking a Stand” with Online Discussion Forums

Discussions are the lifeblood of online courses.

It’s as simple as that.

When many people think about discussion boards, they probably think of them as tedious exercises with a number of students essentially piggy-backing off of what the more ambitious students (i.e. those who post before Thursday at midnight) present in the discussion.

To many, it would seem like it would make more sense to simply add extra assignments and not to put students (and professors!) through the perceived charade of facilitated “course interaction”.

However, there are some fallacies to this line of thought.

For those of you who have taken classes at traditional brick-and-mortar schools, imagine having a course where course notes and videos were put online for you to view with the professor’s name and contact information available if you wanted to reach out to him.

No in-class discussion.

No discussions…at all.

It would probably seem a bit weird and, probably to many of you, would be favorable.

However, something is lost without interaction and the sharing of ideas with others in the classroom environment.

Your grand theories on climate change, human evolution, and the existence of God, as flawed as they may be, would go unchallenged, leaving you with shakier, untested arguments.

Classes need these discussions to facilitate learning.

More importantly, online classes need properly facilitated and administered discussions to maximize learning outcomes.

What exactly is meant by “properly facilitated and administered”?  Different people will likely have different answers.

My rant today is about late postings and how loose policies on discussion board participation can lead to a less-than-stellar learning experience for students and exponentially more difficult teaching experiences for professors.

Many universities have concrete policies in place that require that late postings (whether these are initial postings or follow-up postings) be deducted a significant number of points (if not all points).

These policies are extremely valuable to professors and to students as they ensure that discussions are manifesting in a consistent and productive manner.

(Posts being submitted at more or less the same time each week when they will be of the most use and insight to those who are reviewing them or replying to them).

An additional benefit that these policies possess is that professors can easily point to them if and when a student complains about losing points about late postings or when the inevitable excuses about why a posting was made late occur.

Some may disagree with this stance and contend that late postings should be treated like any other assignment.  Any student effort that is submitted in a somewhat reasonable time period should be accepted.

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To this, I ask you to imagine your brick-and-mortar classroom one more time.

Walk into the lecture hall on a day when classes aren’t being held.

Now start talking at length about the course content and concepts that were discussed last week.

It’s possible that a custodian may be hanging around or that your professor may have ducked into the classroom to retrieve his umbrella.

Otherwise, you’re talking to…nobody.

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Is it likely that the professor will check and tell you what a good job you’ve done before awarding you full participation points for this exercise?

No…not at all

Will anyone ever discover what you have said and reach out to you to discuss the content in further detail?

I guess it’s possible, but I wouldn’t count on it

So…why should credit be given for late discussion board postings?

Simply put, they shouldn’t and institutions that have policies in place that specify that a number of points be deducted for late postings are an online professor’s best friend.

Unfortunately, such policies seem to be more of an exception rather than the norm with many institutions leaving it up to the online professor’s discretion in regards to how he or she wants to approach late discussion board grading.

On the surface, this seems like a pretty good compromise.  For those who feel strongly that all posts should be given credit, they can assign points as they like and for those who would prefer to not award credit, they can deduct points as necessary.

Additionally, those who have control over the creation or editing of syllabi can place these policies in a place that all students will (…maybe) read, ensuring (maybe) that they are well-informed on discussion board policies and associated implications.

However, to understand why this can still be problematic requires a basic understanding of how universities, particularly those with heavy online enrollments and presence, work in America.

I will now explain this process in intricate detail

…they want the enrollments and the money!

Yeah…. that’s pretty much my entire explanation.

So what does this have to do with discussion boards?  Well, this requires thinking one or two moves ahead.

Inevitably, there are students who will complain about any policy that deducts points for late submissions.  I’m not sure if this is a cultural or generational thing, but in 2017, there is a surprisingly common sentiment that work that is submitted late should be accepted.

I am all for students getting partial credit for work as things arise or, at times, time may not be managed appropriately…

…but not for discussion board postings!

Getting back to our complaining student, it is likely that the student may reach out to their advisor or even directly to the program coordinator or another ranking university administrator.

After explaining a situation that more or less completely justifies the fact that they need to submit a discussion board post two weeks late, it is possible that the online professor will receive a message shortly thereafter.

This message may be as simple as an acknowledgement of the e-mail that they recently received to a direct order that the late posting not only be accepted, but given full credit (no penalty, whatsoever).

(It is also possible that you don’t receive a message.  The advisor or program coordinator actually went to bat for you and reaffirmed the policy to the student…which of course is the best possible situation!)

This type of message is troubling enough on the surface, but its negative implications spread exponentially further.

Something that I’ve noticed that seems to be common among online program administrators is an inconsistency related to student communication.

Those promoting online learning (myself included) are usually very quick to merit of the “enriched” online environment where students from all over the world are able to communicate with each other within the virtual medium.

However, it seems as though many believe that such communication is solely reserved for in-class discussions or when students are working on group projects together.

Students would never compare grades, professor comments, or…gasp…late grading policies.

Right?

Wrong

I approach every class under the assumption that every student is a close confidant with every other student and that each week, the entire class gets together to discuss what the online professor had to say about the assignment.

Because of this, I not only switch around some of my cut-and-pasted comments and use different wording in my post-submission content, but also do my best to be as consistent as possible with grading standards and policies.

Of course, there are going to be subconscious biases or times where inconsistencies occur when looking at specific submitted content.

However, if a universal grading policy is put in place, it should be adhered to.

Students will find out if a policy is levied in one way for a particular student and a different way for another student.

Upon finding out about the inconsistent application of the policy, students will be (rightfully) upset and will let you know that they do not appreciate the inconsistency.

Students will make note of this on your evaluation which will, of course, be reviewed by your program coordinator and other administrative personnel (especially the ones that are tasked with assigning your future courses!)

Right…you get it; being inconsistent with grading policies is no bueno!

So, what exactly can be done when administrators and advisers are breathing down your neck, appealing to you, whether in a sympathetic manner or in a way that is a bit more…forceful?

You need to stand firm and confident and be articulate in defending your policies.

Your program coordinator is not a stupid person (advisors can be…hit or miss…).  She knows the importance of adhering to policies (which is pretty much what she does in her administrative role all day).

By explaining to her why your policy is set the way it is (feel free to use the reasons that I have outlined above when arguing your case!) and the potential for negative repercussions if you selectively apply the policy, you apply to the logical arm of the argument.

By explaining your commitment to upholding the integrity of your class, the online learning environment, and higher education in general, you apply your emotional, “rah rah” claims.

From here, there isn’t much you can do other than wait for a likely response.

Although it is very possible that your program coordinator or advisor will take your comments to heart and drop the issue, it is likely equally as likely that the issue will continue to be pushed.  The latter occurs for a number of reasons.

  • For starters, refer back to the “model” of higher education/online learning that I mentioned above. The pressures to keep students enrolled is higher than ever in 2017.
  • This consideration also feeds into the mindset that students are “customers” and should be treated as such. In the minds of many administrators, the “customer is always right” mantra (unfortunately) rings true in higher education.
  • In many cases, an advisor and student may maintain a “chummy” relationship and the advisor feels like he is “going to bat” for the student and “representing their best interest” by pushing the issue.
  • It is possible that the student has appealed to the heart strings of the administrator or staff member and they simply can’t see why you would be so cold-hearted to not allow them opportunities to participate.

I could go on with these reasons, but I think that you get the point.

At this point, it is clear that the administrator is not likely to budge on the situation so you must decide how you would like to resolve the issue.

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The obvious “solution” would be to give in to the wishes of the program coordinator or advisor and to allow the student to participate late and to receive the original credit.

With this outcome, you will have essentially compromised your beliefs on the subject matter and would need to be on the lookout for student complaints of inconsistent grading practices for the rest of the term (or even in the future if your course is part of a program, particularly one with a cohort model).

Another option is to acknowledge the wishes of the responding party in an e-mail with a higher-ranking administrator copied on it, but reaffirming your policy on the topic and commitment to maintaining the integrity of the classroom.

This is a high-risk, high-reward option since it could not only resolve your situation, but also make ranking parties aware of the types of pressures that faculty may be facing to break their own policies.

At the same time, the higher administrator may agree that you should break the policy, leaving you almost no choice but to do so.  It is also likely that this official has likely ticked a “trouble maker” box for you in her personal file.

The last option is to disagree again and maintain that you will not be changing the grade.

This is likely to draw the ire of the program coordinator or advisor, but it is not likely that the issue will escalate.  Remember, that you were given the discretion to make and enforce the policy and you aren’t technically doing anything wrong by not complying.

It is very unlikely that you will be terminated or face formal disciplinary action.

You may, however, quickly notice that your teaching assignments begin to dry up or are less favorable than they have been in the past.

However, you have “taken your stand” and I would argue that abiding by your own standards and principles sooner rather than later will save you large amounts of frustration and heartache in the future.

Since you probably won’t be terminated for such an egregious offense, your employment will still show up on your CV as active employment, which will help in landing new gigs.

As you continue to “organized your bench”, do so with a clear idea in mind of the type of administration and associated support that you desire in a university.

Keep applying.

Find these jobs.

Teach the way you know you should teach.

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