The semester begins. Servers everywhere fire up. And students across the globe introduce themselves in discussion forums. In Canvas, in D2L, in Blackboard, in Moodle. Teachers from every field, students of every subject — from mathematics to Russian literature, from astrophysics to marine biology — spend the first days or week of an online class saying hello. “What are you studying? Where are you from? Do you have pets / hobbies / recreational activities? Include a picture!” For five years as an online English instructor, the first week of class meant the monotonous drone of my keyboard clicking away as I typed furiously responses to each of my 120+ students. One-hundred and twenty hellos. One-hundred and twenty ways to welcome learners to the semester.
But does the discussion forum really do the work it’s supposed to, that we hope it does? Jesse Stommel and I observe:
“Instead of providing fertile ground for brilliant and lively conversation, discussion forums are allowed to go to seed. They become over-cultivated factory farms, in which nothing unexpected or original is permitted to flourish. Students post because they have to, not because they enjoy doing so. And teachers respond (if they respond at all) because they too have become complacent to the bizarre rules that govern the forum.”
Instead of becoming the thriving, intersectional space that a physical classroom can become (under good stewardship), the discussion forum too often limps along through the term, a repository of half-thought essays pried from the overtired minds of students who, if they have a community of learners, find solidarity away from the screen rather than within it.