Perils of Small (Online) Courses, Part 2

How I see my course design
How I see my course design

Two weeks ago I wrote about the lack of discussion in two online graduate courses with a combined enrollment of eleven students. These two courses ended yesterday and I’m now taking a break from grading final exams. Discussion decreased to zero in the last week of one of the courses and remained paltry in the other.

I created an ungraded, anonymous survey to try to find out what students thought was most useful about these courses. Perhaps how I think about course design, which includes weekly discussion, is very different from how students think about it. However, only two people responded to the survey, so I have to guess both about the causes of the problem and about potential remedies.

None of these remedies are very attractive to me. I could increase the weight of discussion participation in the final grade to something like 20 percent. But as I wrote previously, my online courses are populated primarily by adult students who have competing demands on their time — such as family and full-time careers. I do not want to penalize people too severely if writing about the course readings is all they have time for, especially since it’s my belief that students learn more from this than from participating in discussions with classmates who often have erroneous or biased points of view.

A second option is to require that each student submit a certain number of responses to other students’ discussion comments each week. But with only a half dozen or so students in a course, I suspect they will quickly just be repeating what others have already posted. 

How students might see my course design
How students might see my course design

A third possibility is to alter the discussion medium itself by requiring video rather than text posts.  Video comments were actually suggested at the blended learning conference that I recently attended as a way of enhancing online discussion, and so I inserted brief introductory videos into discussions beginning with the fourth week of class. But there are major drawbacks to this technique, too. Videos aren’t captioned, which contradicts universal design principles. Listening to comments made on video takes longer than reading text when the instructor is grading the quality of the content. And some students will invariably be incapable of producing video of sufficient quality or in a usable format.

The last option is to just abandon online discussions altogether — one less thing for me to grade — when a small number of students enroll in a course. Given students’ lack of engagement with online discussion this year, they must not have found it very important to their learning or to their grades, so eliminating it might not have much of a negative effect.

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