The skeptic thread seems to have caused quite a stir, attracted lots of posts and whipped up a fair bit of emotion. This thread, and others initiated by the same author, is where the action is – certainly where there’s a lot of fierce, interesting, stimulating and compelling discussion. And yet this seems to have disturbed some course participants and possibly even course leaders.
It seems difficult to get the balance right online. Either you just can’t get your students to engage in critical discussion – they are all too polite to each other, don’t say what they really think, perhaps don’t even have the necessary critical thinking, argumentation and debating skills needed for academically rigorous discussion or just don’t seem to want to engage the brain – or – they’re going at each other hammer and tongs.
At the Networked Learning Conference in 2004, I was interested that the Open University was trying to tackle a lack of argumentation skills in their students and I often refer back to their paper when working with students online. In my own experience lack of challenge is always more of a problem than ‘flaming’ or the equivalent online behaviour.
As with everything context is all important. If this were a small intimate online course (say 20-30 people), then the fierceness of some of the posts, however justified the content of the argument (and I am finding a lot of the arguments being put forward very thought provoking), could cause a complete collapse of the course, if it caused enough people to withdraw from posting. If it were a small course and I was moderating I probably would do some ‘back channelling’ to try and get the balance right. However, on a course of this size, I can’t see collapse of the course as a possibility and there is no doubt that the sceptic threads have added an energy to the course.
So as a moderator in this situation of a large course and fierce debate in some of the threads, what would be my responsibility to participants who feel intimidated and therefore won’t post. I suppose the alternatives for these participants would include:
- find smaller/calmer discussion threads/groups to join
- connect through means other than moodle discussion forums – blogs etc.
- join the live sessions – Elluminate/Ustream
- exploit opportunities for making connections between concepts/ideas, through reading, listening, observing and ‘lurking’
- find like-minded participants and set up your own small groups
- recognise that participation in forum discussion is voluntary not obligatory
For myself, I haven’t felt the need yet to join the discussion forums. Presumably this means that I am not taking full advantage of this connectivism learning theory – am not connected? Maybe so, but at the moment it feels OK to me.