By Branca Mirnic, Instructor, LEAP Program
|Early in 2020, students all over the world experienced a sudden, dramatic, and unprecedented shift in their academic world. A whole semester and half later, we have found ourselves preparing for more semesters teaching and learning in the virtual environment. Some instructors at Langara took the opportunity to write about their perspectives on the impact of moving to remote teaching and learning.
Our sixth contribution comes from Branca Mirnic, an instructor in the LEAP Program. Below, we share Branca’s article, “Creating Social Presence in Online Classroom through Brightspace Discussions,” a thoughtful exploration on how to encourage social presence alongside tips and examples for designing and implementing online discussions.
We look forward to bringing you more Perspectives. If you would like to make a contribution, please contact Jessica Kalra at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I fell in love with Discussions in 2012 when I used them for the first time. I immediately realized the potential of this asynchronous mode for language learning. In my view, the exchange of ideas shouldn’t stop once the class was over. Also, I was confident that this anytime, anywhere access could help shy or weaker students who needed time to formulate their thoughts.
Unfortunately, when writing online, my students used the same writing conventions as they did when interacting through social media, which led to frequent language issues and poor organization and development. I wanted the student contributions to online discussions to reflect understanding of course materials and include related thoughts, experiences and observations, evaluate and synthesize sources, while my students used Discussions to exchange personal experiences and retell what happened in class.
As a language instructor, I pondered over the question: How could participating in online discussions reinforce online academic writing and improve critical thinking skills? Perhaps, if I created meaningful activities, which would be actualized by active participation, they could lead to improved critical thinking.
The Community of Inquiry (CoI) theoretical framework (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2001) also comes to the conclusion that all successful online discussions promote constructing knowledge. The model analyzes the support of Cognitive Presence and its relationship with Teaching and Social Presence (Figure 1.a).
To me, building the relationship within the CoI is a process. As an instructor, I facilitate this process by putting an emphasis on collaboration and student involvement in an online community – Social Presence (Figure 1.b). I like to say that without Social Presence there is no (online) class, only a group of students who individually with more or less success try to pass the level by mainly relying on their instructors. The (online) class must increase the feeling of togetherness among the students. The Brightspace communication tools such as the Discussion Boards allow me to create pairs, smaller, and/or larger groups to facilitate this process.
While happy with the way Discussions work, my question still remains: How can collaborative work reinforce online academic writing and higher-order cognitive learning in my students when they keep on submitting shallow responses, short posts and unedited work?
Without proper design and structure, my students take on a passive role. But if a task is complex and requires depth of understanding materials and creativity in solving problems, the collaboration among students (Social Presence) becomes better, and the cognitive benefit (Cognitive Presence) is greater (Figure 1.c). To ensure the CoI process, I use rubrics created directly in Brightspace. I often go to rCampus rubrics gallery for ideas on where to start. I ensure that rubrics are available to the students by enabling “Make Visible to Users” in Brightspace. I want students to see the criteria and to use the rubric as a guideline for their posts. To encourage students to use rubrics as a guideline, I emphasize, review, and clearly link the rubric to the Discussion topic. By providing challenging discussion prompts, clear guidelines for contribution and occasional evaluation of the discussion posts I noticed full participation, class bonding and higher-order learning.
Was I Ready When the Pandemic Hit?
No! I didn’t feel competent enough to teach remotely even after years of using Brightspace Discussions. I took courses, webinars, and workshops from Cambridge, Innovative Educators, Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and BCcampus Facilitating Learning Online (FLO) MicroCourses. Since taking these seminars, I began presenting prompts in a variety of formats. Our students are visually oriented. Many watch more video than read text. So, I added videos, gifs and photos to text-based posts. I understand now it is important to mix it up.
In order to emphasize the sense of belonging on the first day of class – to create Social Presence – I answer the prompt first, showing that I am a real person. This helps me judge the amount of expected time and required cognitive effort. Everything takes longer in an online class and the attention span of our students isn’t the same as in the face-face classroom. I also write down and/or screencast the instruction: I pretend to teach, record myself, transcribe it, edit and embed the instructions in New Forum or Topic. Besides, being on the other side of the computer screen, I do not know what students are doing when I am giving out instructions synchronously. I compete with video games, action movies and social media. I need a permanent record of the expectations, and I create a survey or a checklist to guarantee full understanding of my instructions. Thanks to TCDC workshops, I learned that my random instructions must be organized in a particular order:
- What you are going to do
- Why you are going to use Discussions
- How you are going to post and respond
There are No Limitations to Brightspace Prompts
Being an integral part of my class, I assign at least one discussion prompt per week. I ask my students to post by Wednesday evening, so that they can to see all the posts, and comment on at least two of the classmates’ posts before class on Friday. To avoid simply “I agree” replies, I ask them to analyze further, express their point of view, oppose, provide details/support and include the word count. That way students carefully choose who to respond to and focus on the task. In order to encourage everybody’s participation and tap into their curiosity, I set up “Users must start a thread before they can read and reply to other threads”.
Here are some of my activities that have been adapted to Brightspace Discussions:
Short video to “meet and greet”
To establish Social Presence at the beginning of the course, I ask students see each other. Interacting online is especially hard to do if students have never met in a physical classroom. Students produce a 30-90-second video sharing interesting facts about themselves and their future goals.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”
Another example of a discussion prompt that can establish Social Presence is “What do you think makes certain things—for example, landscapes, buildings, or images—beautiful? What is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen? Why is it beautiful?” I ask students to attach a video clip or an image to their written post. This can generate a lot of responses.
“What must you stop doing to pass the course?”
I use ideas from Liberating Structures to go beyond the structure of the traditional discussion. As one example, instead of asking “What would you do differently in order to pass this course?”, I ask them to stop counterproductive activities and behaviours by changing my question to “What must you stop doing to pass the course?”
Peer evaluation on a synthesis paragraph
To facilitate group collaboration and sense of community, I ask students to work together on an outline for the synthesis paragraph but to write the paragraph individually. Once it’s written, they evaluate each other’s paragraph according to the same criteria outlined in my rubric guidelines. By working together and evaluating each other’s work, students notice linguistic and organizational problems which promotes higher order of thinking.
Debate presentation written practice
Another way to get students collaborating is to ask them to participate in a debate. Students use strategies of argumentation to participate in an oral debate. While a debate is a unique style of presentation, quite difficult for English for Academic Purposes (EAP) students to master, the major focus is on structure of an argument and counter argument, synthesis of sources, proper source attribution and the language of the debate. I set it up as a 3-day written or oral practice (“Add Attachments” of multiple short audio files) in a preparation for the final oral debate. Being asynchronous, it gives a team a chance to prepare the strongest evidence which will support their stance.
Turn a discussion post into a paper
What if students tried to think of discussion posts as stepping-stones to larger papers and projects? Discussion posts are also a really great chance to practice writing in scholarly style, organizing ideas on a smaller scale. If the content doesn’t end up transferring to a larger paper, the practice and the skills of writing and collecting and focusing ideas, do. Reviewing earlier thoughts lead to synthesis and argumentation students wouldn’t have come up with otherwise.
The muddiest point
The “Muddiest Point” is space provided for Q&A. Instead of answering their questions, I allow students to take the centre stage by initiating dialogues, offering explanations, encouraging and supporting each other.
Using Discussions for private journals is incredibly powerful, this is where so much of the integration of learning happens. After a successful online session, I may include this prompt: Write a short reflection on how the course has changed your thinking about two to three course topics. (Kudos to TCDC for this question).
What makes Brightspace Communication – Discussions useful:
- With this shift to remote teaching and moving our life to cyberspace, Brightspace Discussions have become an indispensable platform, which helps me engage real students in a real class
- Our students are digital natives, not necessarily tech savvy, but the social-media -type set up in Brightspace is intuitive and it doesn’t require a lot of explanation.
- Each student has knowledge and experiences to contribute to online discussions.
- This around-the-clock accessibility allows one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many interactions.
- Innately, there is willingness to share. There is enough curiosity to read, comment, respond, analyze, synthesize and get to higher-order learning.
- There is also a mutual exchange in the peer review process– students give feedback– students receive feedback.
- With clear guidelines and subtle encouragement to contribute to an online community and to nurture Social Presence, students take the challenge in directing their own learning.