Page 42 - Campus Technology, March/April 2020
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A 2019 survey among college students uncovered a troubling data point: Just two-thirds of those students considered the discussion forums in their most recent online courses “engaging.” If the discussion forum is meant to serve as a virtual proxy for the lively social environment of a physical classroom, that lack of enthusiasm suggests that the technology in use is failing a full third of students.
We shouldn’t wonder. Untold syllabi spell out the formula for success by the numbers: how many discussion posts, how many responses and even how long by word count. In those courses, the discussion forum has become another to-do that students have to check off the list.
As the researchers of the survey noted, the gap between what a discussion forum could be and what it comes across as to disengaged students highlights “an opportunity for improvement.”
What the Opportunity Looks Like
Frequently, the first interaction a student has in an online course is when the instructor asks each person to post an introductory bio to the discussion forum. Sometimes the results come across as a text-heavy copy-and-paste
job from LinkedIn as people jostle for position. Yawn. Other
times, it can expose the shy personalities or those with a weakness in English-as-a-second language. Ouch! That’s old-school.
Marcus Popetz runs 42 Lines, a company that develops bespoke education technology solutions for colleges and universities. 42 Lines recently introduced Harmonize, software that allows discussion forums to act more like the social forums students choose to use outside of school. They can share published or recorded videos, add images, embed audio, include links that show thumbnail previews
of the corresponding web page, drag and drop files, respond to others’ posts in any of those formats and, of course, include text.
He remembers one class that tested Harmonize, where the instructor asked people to introduce themselves, and the first brave soul to do so took a picture of her footwear because she was really proud of her shoe collection. “That snowballed until every student was introducing themselves by taking pictures of the shoes they were wearing right then,” he recalled. “Some of them showed high heels. Some showed Converse. Some showed boots.” Then the students gave a brief introduction that explained what their footwear said about them. Each photographic contribution was displayed in a tile showing an image of the footwear. When students clicked on a picture, it would flip around so people could read the details.
The simple act of being able to show shoes as avatars inspired a spate of interaction among the students in that online class like no amount of scrolling discussion forum text could ever do. Here are seven other ways faculty can spark deeper engagement through their learning platform.
As students turn to the use of video and photographic images for assignments, faculty should be able to embed their feedback in those same media. With that kind of capability, for example, the instructor in an American Sign Language class could pause a student-made video at the exact point where the hands are too far apart or a finger is pointing in the

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