The Safety 'Net: Fostering Community through Web-based Discussions
**The most recent version of this article is available at http://horizon.unc.edu/ts/default.asp?show=article&id=911 **
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This summer I decided to restructure my course to include discussion time not in class but over the Internet. Throughout four of the six weeks of class, students solely communicated with members of the class and with me through a Web-based discussion forum. We still however met on campus in a traditional University classroom during both the first and last week of the session. Currently I teach at Colorado State University in the Teacher Licensure Program preparing Secondary teachers across the content areas. Colleagues wondered openly how I might "teach" a course about how to manage the behavior of students, to forty-three preservice teachers, online effectively? "I don't know," said one of my skeptical colleagues teaching the same class to a different section:
It just feels like you are going to give up that personal face-to-face interaction. How will you ever develop a sense of collegiality amongst the group? How will you measure student progress? Do you honestly believe that your students will be able to 'discuss' classroom management issues online? Will they feel safe enough to bring up their highs and lows of working with students on a computer? Won't they need a face-to-face seminar to process? It just feels so mechanical and impersonal. How will students feel safe enough to share?
I honestly stood there blank-faced when my colleague asked these questions of me. I frankly did not have any idea at that point whether putting a class about Behavior Management online would be effective or not. I was, however, ready to take the risk and find out.
The following section describes the structure of the class. Historically the class met for thirty sessions on the University campus face to face with the professor. An additional requirement was that students observed teachers in the public schools in an effort to tie theory to practice. This summer however the structure of the course was significantly changed. The class was scheduled to meet five days a week from 7:30am to 12 noon for six weeks in May/June. During the first five sessions tradition was honored. Students met on the college campus to discuss expectations and foundations of the course. Students were required to research models of behavioral intervention. Findings were to be posted using PowerPoint© on the class Web bulletin board. Throughout the first week, students were required to attend an in class session on how to access and utilize the class Webpage. My hope was that students would feel comfortable using the technology. I wanted to assure that they would feel confident as to how to communicate frequently and freely with others registered in the course. On the Webpage photos were posted that I had taken of each student on the first day of class so that faces and names would be reinforced.
During the second phase of the course students were paired with match up teachers in the public schools. For the period of that phase students reported to the high schools and they did not report to the College campus. Students were told not to simply observe but to actively support and participate with the Secondary public school students. A paper was to be submitted each of the four Fridays via email tying Intervention theory to current practical experience. Students supplemented their class text with the power point presentations offered by peers on the Web. Students were expected also to communicate about their experiences of working in the schools, with their match up teachers and with their students. I started off the semester posing scenarios for thoughtful reflection. I encouraged meaningful and purposeful statements. I praised the students privately and publicly for their thoughts. What followed was a candid forum in which students offered suggestions, solutions and support to those who posted comments. Some students posted questions, others experience. The bulletin board was open 24 hours a day so students had constant access. Students were encouraged to place topics for discussion on the bulletin board. Stressing joint responsibility I was careful to relinquish my professorial control by encouraging other student centered points for discussion. To ensure an ongoing dialogue, I asked that each student to react to the bulletin board discussion, posted on the Web, three different days of each of the four weeks in the field. The final week of the six-week course was spent back at the University.
What I will share with you in this article are excerpts from the actual transcription from the student bulletin board extracted from the class home Webpage. During the second week of class, I read a message, written by an Instrumental Music student named Phoung, titled "The Coolest Thing Happened…" Below is that message:
We were playing through a piece on Friday called, "Bring Him Home" from Les Miserables. The first chair trumpet player was absent so the teacher asked, "Does anybody want to play a solo? Anybody?" A tiny boy raised his hand; I found a later that his name is Drew. We started the piece, and I was wondering how a tiny boy was going to be able to play through the solo (Really, he was about 3 feet tall). Drew closed his eyes and played that solo with all the emotion and musicianship in his body. It was obvious that even though he wasn't the normal soloist for the piece, he still went home and practiced it, dreaming of the day that he could play it. His day came, and Drew reminded me of myself when I was young, always dreaming of beautiful music and having the spotlight for just a few minutes. If nothing else goes well for the rest of the class, I'll still remember how Drew reminded me of why I want to be a music teacher.
Twelve students within forty-eight hours responded to Phoung's posting. Many applauded. Many encouraged. Some shared their classroom experiences in practicuum as related to this vignette. Students conversed about the essence of teaching, to facilitate learning within the context of building positive interrelationships. Students spoke about the thrill of facilitating the successful risk taking and achievements of a group of students. As a reader I was impressed with the degree of warmth and positive collegiality of the interactions in this thread.
What follows is an English major student named Shannon's entry. As she told me earlier that afternoon on campus, she had experienced something working in the schools during summer school that was upsetting. She described the situation to me with tears streaming down her face. She asked, on her way out the door, if I thought posting this on the Web would be a good idea. I had a hunch that other students would benefit from Shannon's story about the student in her class. Shannon said, "I have to think about it. I don't think I will be able to read the responses right away but I think you are right, other students can begin to think about what they might do, or how they might react if, and when, this happens to them." Shannon's words followed Phoung's thread and was titled "Something not so cool happened…":
Hi everyone. I just wanted to let you guys know what happened over the weekend and consequently affected my experience at [the High School] this morning. I'm not feeling very articulate right now, so please bear with me. One of my students died in a car wreck on the 4th of July, his name was Tyler. My cooperating teacher as well as the students in my room was informed at break yesterday right after I left for the day. When I walked in this morning many counselors, teachers and administrators discussing what to do greeted me. I had no idea what had happened so I sat quietly to the side of the activity. I don't really know what else to tell you guys other than it was a very upsetting experience. I kept myself collected throughout the class and then drove straight to a pay phone where I cried to my mother. I'm still sorting this out in my own mindso I don't have any profound insights to share as of yet. I only found out this morning. The memorial service is at Tyler's parents' house Friday night. They ask that fellow students bring pictures to share and not wear black. He was a really neat kid.
The response to Shannon's entry was overwhelming. Within forty-eight hours Shannon had elicited nearly twenty emails. Peers offered support, compassion, sorrow and advice. One student wrote, "I am very sorry to hear about your experience. Please let us know if there is anything that we can do." Another said, " The most helpful thing is to have someone listen and to recognize what happened. Allow a forum for which your students can be sad and can recognize this loss." Students identified with this sense of loss and disclosed personal accounts of bereavement from their own high school experiences. As a result of the discussion students petitioned to have the course offer a module about how teachers might best respond to the death of a student within their classroom. What might have been a very lonely experience for Shannon, given the forum of the bulletin board, removed her from isolation and encouraged a unique approach for comfort, support, and connectivity. The students participating in the bulletin board discussion about the issues of death and dying, were able to come together in ways that seemed to have prepared teacher candidates much more intensely than in the traditional teacher preparation course.
All together in this short six-week course the bulletin board had over 700 postings. Judging simply not from the amount of exchanges, but judging from the depth of the interactions, I am now looking forward to a conversation with my skeptical colleague. I am eager to share with her the richness of the Web discussion. I believe that I was successful in creating and fostering a safe, secure, and protected place that allowed my students to openly express them. Communicating, yet never uttering a word created a foundation for strength. A kinship had formed. Preservice and inservice teachers often suggest that their teaching is done in isolation. Framed by parameters of a University course, teacher candidates reached out to one another joined by a similar experience. Over the Internet community had formed.
It is my belief that the bulletin board discussion provided a secure and protective arena so that students could have a shared place available to them upon desire or need. The online discussion acted as a shelter in which to discuss the happenings on the Practicum site. This one experience has change the way in which I will deliver my course material from now forward. Whether teaching a traditional University course or not, I am forever committed to the incorporation of the online discussion forum. For those who might not otherwise have the courage to speak in a large lecture hall, or for those hoping to share an experience so that others might learn, or for those wanting to collaborate and befriend, the Internet offers a safe and convenient place for dialogue. It has been my experience, as illustrated by Phoung and Shannon and the others, that an online discussion can provide such a sheltered site.
Further, I noticed that during the final week of the semester, when we met again together on campus, the students seemed to be familiar and connected in class discussions--more so than any other class that I had assisted before. For the first in my career I did not feel as though I had the full responsibility to do all of the facilitation. A sense of unified community was present. There were no longer simply a group of people on the computer together. Instead I was met with a cooperative spirit joined by similar experience. No longer had the Practicum experience be one that occurred in isolation. Having already "talked" many times over, which might not happen in a traditional course, students recognized the personalities and stories of their colleagues. The students were eager to participate. After all this had been their experience all semester.
I don't think this article should be published:
- It does not suggest anything that is unique to online discussion groups.
- In addition, it is written more as an anecdotal story than as a scholarly article.
- It does not offer any new insights into new software, technologies, or ways of implementing discussion groups.