Q&A with Chris Ringrose

In 2010 Chris Ringrose, then of the University of Northampton, now of Monash University Melbourne, you wrote the introduction to a HEA Subject Centre ‘Online discussion in English Studies: good practice guide*’.  I asked him the following questions (arising from his 2010 introduction) to see if his ideas around this form of delivery have changed.

Q 1: You mention the possible use of a ‘pre-module discussion board to break the ice.’ Would you recommend trying this for a first year BA module; i.e. to try to get the students engaged before they have actually meet their classmates face-to-face?

It was a bright idea, and I had seen it used elsewhere to establish contact with students before they arrive, set a little induction task something like the ones they get in Induction Week, and hope that they read each other’s responses. But now I wonder if it might be too much pressure — displaying your responses before an audience of strangers….

Q2: You mention: ‘Online discussion, together with blogs and wikis, provide spaces in which students can share insights, readings, discoveries and creative work.’ In an pilot experiment I have just been running I think I did not give enough thought to the choices I needed to make: have you any suggestions for matching types of task to specific platforms (discussion board; wiki, blog)?

We used short critical responses to passages (literary and theoretical) and obliged students to reply to at least one other posting by another student. We also posted images (posters, paintings from the period in question etc. with a short snappy question). We tried definitions of literary and theoretical terms, but the answers tended to be ‘cut and paste’ ones. I should mention that these activities were part of the module assessment, and that it would probably fall into disuse if that were not the case.

Q3: You mention: ‘e-spaces are open 24 hours a day throughout the year and supplement the kinds of dialogue that take place in face-to-face seminars and workshops.’ This seems to refer very much to the kind of blended learning approaches we are developing to become ‘Waterside ready’, BUT, (notice a big BUT) there seem to be few suggestions about acceptable ratios of face-to-face seminars and online activities. Do you have any instinctive ideas about what you think would be an acceptable ratio?

I had not thought, at the time, of such activities replacing face-to-face contact. They just supplemented it through assessment. But of course there is not reason why one hour of on line work should be combined with (say) three hours of seminar/lecture. Any more than that and the tutors would be involved in massive amounts of monitoring.

Q4: You mention: ‘technology-enhanced learning, far from downgrading academic discourse, puts the spotlight on students’ writing skills, and their ability to subtly adapt their discourse to a variety of contexts and audiences’. I had feared, in my pilot experiment, that student contributions to online discussion would veer towards social media texting styles, yet found that in fact their writing was generally of a good academic style. I am thinking that an outcome of this project might be a reusable online ‘guide to appropriate styles for student discourse’, i.e. indicating in a whole range of written & spoken texts, online and face-to-face, and with a range of different interlocutors, what levels of formality/editing would be acceptable. Would you endorse this idea, or should we just let them experiment (‘suck it and see’)?

I think I’d go for some ‘sample responses and styles’. It may sound prescriptive, but when I did an online course myself the sample pages provided by the tutor allayed certain anxieties about expectation.

Q5: You raise the concern (shared by many teachers) resulting from: ‘previous experience of online discussion has been of an embarrassing dead end, petering out after a few entries by only the most committed students’. You suggest that this can be avoided if discussions are: ‘well designed and expertly moderated’,  and go on to give 4 pointers about achieving this (summarised below). Would you now have any changes or additions to these pointers?

(a) to work successfully, discussion forums must not appear half-hearted; they need to evidence genuine commitment and imagination on the part of the tutor;

(b) as tutor-moderator, you don’t have to go overboard and comment on every entry as it shows up. […] if you are aiming at a “student-centred pedagogy”, don’t fuss – make your interventions focused and just sufficient to make clear your interest in the work underway;

(c) there is no reason why contributions to boards cannot be summatively assessed, given the right strategies.

[d] […]students need to be eased into the process of posting, through gentle introductory activities that establish their presence on the discussion board.

Did I write all that? It seems to make sense, even when read in Melbourne. Summative assessment — probably essential. One of the online discussion forums that worked best for us was that on the MA in the Arts, where part-time students planned their group presentations via the discussion board, and posted relevant material and images. It meant they were able to keep in touch even though they met only once a week. Of course, they could have done it on their own initiative via email, but with the online platform the tutor was able to monitor, advise and intervene.

* http://humbox.ac.uk/2389/


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