Monday, January 7, 2008

Discuss it - Forums

Sometimes forums on the Internet can be like the wild west of the old days; lawless and untamed. At our school, we use SharePoint websites, and one of it's features is the discussion forum. Here is an example of how I have used it with a class of Grade 4 students.

First I had the students read 3 pages of a textbook on water. It covered topics such as fresh vs. salt water, the water cycle, and water pollution. In a previous lesson we had learned how to take notes of the important points of a textbook page, and we used those skills to make a page of notes. After class I create a series of 9 questions based on these 3 pages in a discussion forum on our classroom website. There were three questions per subtopic. The questions only took me a few minutes to create. The students were going to answer these questions by clicking on each question, reading it, and then clicking on "post reply" to type their answer in.

The next day, I had the students bring only their notes in, and they answered these questions. I noticed that there were a lot of answers for the first 7 questions, but only a couple of people answered the last two questions on pollution. This tells me that I needed to review pollution in class, but not spend a lot of time on salt vs. fresh water or the topic of the water cycle. I also had all the students stand up, and when I called out their name (when I saw they had posted an answer), they sat down. This enabled me to see by who was left standing, who was answering questions, and who might be needing help. I refer to this as playing a game of "stand-up, sit-down" and no student ever takes offense to this process.

On day 3 we were back in the computer lab. I had the students read the answers other kids had given in the forum. Then I asked "who needs to add to their notes something they have just learned, or just realized was important to study about water?" 11 out of 21 students said they needed to add to their notes, and did so on the spot. I then showed the students how to click on each others' answers, and with a little discussion of how to speak respectfully on-line, I had them add to other students answers, question them, or at times correct them. No student's answers were changed, but had comments attached to them. Kids were calling out to each other in the lab, "hey, I replied to your answer to number 7", or "read what I wrote this time."

Only once did I have to correct someone for adding something off topic, and the rest of the time students were on task, and engaged in the "grand conversations" we as teacher long for our students to have. One of the most interesting examples was when two of my students with severe learning disabilities were having a conversation online

Question: What are two of the 4 ways outlined in the text where people create water pollution problems?

ans child1) When peopl por oil down the drane (When people pour oil down the drain)

child2)- You re sapposed to tel 2 ways. What else can yo thik of? (You are supposed to tell two ways. What else can you think of?)

These two kids demonstrated the kind of thinking I want all my students to do in my class. Child 2 in my opinion showed a great deal of respect when speaking to child1. I don't always see this kind of respect in adults on forums, and these kids are 10 years old!

I think that I could use forums the same way with older students. The advantages are that it offers students more time to respond to questions, and to be able to respond at school and at home. It encourages discussion between students. It encourages critical thinking. It provides the opportunity to teach how to speak or even offer criticism in a socially responsible way. One necessary item in the forum is that it must be set up so that students are identified by their login, and that each comment they make has their ID next to it. This holds people accountable for what they say. Just like in the real world.

I definitely want to have academic forums in the course that I am designing.

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