Problem of Practice – Empathy Report on Discussion Forums
From our readings this week, we’ve come to realize that design requires us to be able to understand the varied perspectives of the users. Design isn’t just about problem solving, we must have the user’s experience in mind when designing. Within my line of work, I have come to realize that there are constraints when incorporating discussion forums within virtual course design. The content sits in one space and the discussion forum sits on another. This creates a dichotomy within the course itself. They are meant to exist in tandem, and seamlessly accompany one another, but instead operate on two separate spaces interrupting the flow of the course modules. Online learners are affected by this disconnect and cumbersome way of navigating through a course module.
In order to empathize with online learners and better understand some of the constraints experienced with this design of discussion forums, I decided to use three means of gathering data, to better empathize with the users. I first interviewed an administrator who is is charge of designing courses for his program in an educational setting. I also interviewed an instructional designer who has experience designing online courses. I also did some research as to what others think about discussion forums. I also reviewed my own experiences with discussion forums, as an online student.
When interviewing the school administrator, I asked him questions about student feedback regarding their experience with discussion forums in their online program. He mentioned that students have complained about the discussion forums periodically. Usually they complain that they wish that the discussion forums were housed with in the content, so that they wouldn’t have to leave the content page in order to access the discussion forums. This seemed very cumbersome to them, since they needed to refer back to the course content, in order participate in the discussion forums. Jumping back and forth from the discussion forum to the course content page wasn’t as efficient for them. The administrator says that students complain, but they just get through it, and unfortunately they hadn’t figured out a way to remedy this issue.
When I interviewed the instructional designer, I asked him what his thoughts were about discussion forums and how they are integrated into online courses. He preceded to explain that, “Discussion forums, in relation to course content, is rather disjointed because no matter how well you craft the discussion prompt, it distracts from the content. They don’t get featured together. If a Content Management System (CMS) is running then you don’t have the discussion forum sitting with the content, instead it sits in the Learning Management System (LMS). He went on to explain, that CMS’s don’t usually carry the underlying discussion forums, they only hold the content. The LMS will never render the content as well as the CMS. Within your CMS, you would have to write out the questions that they will find in the LMS, where the real discussion happens, in order to refer students to what you have put into the discussion forum area.” I asked him, “What could be a good solution to this problem?” He replied, “A solution would be to find a way to put more content in that display area. If the discussion forums and the content are displayed together, then the student has the opportunity to peruse the whole module while responding in the discussion forum.”
There seem to be different constraints and drawbacks mentioned in some of the research articles I came across while researching this topic online. Namely, how this relatively standardized interface attempts to replace or facilitate the many and varied modes of interaction we might have in a physical classroom setting. But in regards to my problem of practice, there seems to be a division between pedagogy and constraints within the LMS, and how it affects the students’ participation within the discussion forum itself. There also seems to be an impersonality within discussion forums, as it does an inadequate job of mimicking the same face-2-face (f2f) interactions you would find in a physical classroom.
In the room with our students, we can know if they’re engaged and participating, even as each of them participates in his or her own unique fashion. In an online discussion forum, it’s difficult to observe such nuance, and impossible to quantitatively evaluate it. Still, teachers working inside the pedantic confines of an LMS and its discussion forum usually acquiesce to its obsolescence. Rather than hacking the system to fit our pedagogy, we can easily become the teachers the LMS wants us to be, which quickly feels less like teaching and a lot more like data entry.
My Perspective as an Online Student
Being in the Master of Arts in Educational Technology program at Michigan State University, I have had the opportunity to experience discussion forums within the online courses I have completed, not to mention, this course, CEP 817. MSU uses Desire for Learning (D2L) as their LMS. Within this LMS, the discussion forums have been cumbersome. IN order for me to participate in a discussion I must leave the module content page, and if I need to refer back to it I must switch back and forth between the two. Form my experience, I find this to be a very inefficient way of, not only engaging in the discussion forum, but also how I interact with the content itself. It feels disjointed. The difficulty increases, depending on the number of discussions that are within the module. The more discussions there are the more I have t jump between the different discussions forums and content associated with them.
I found my experiences similar to those I found through the interviews and online research I performed. This disjointed feel, takes away from the “community” feel one should experience within the the discussion forums and affects how we, as students, interact with the course content.
Morris, S., & Stommel, J. (2013, May 8). The Discussion Forum is Dead; Long Live the Discussion Forum. Retrieved from http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/journal/the-discussion-forum-is-dead-long-live-the-discussion-forum/