What do we want out of online discussions?

What do we want out of online discussions?

I’m going to start by saying something obvious. Online discussions are very different from face to face conversations. We all know this. We read and write and interact online, and we are often amazed and puzzled by the discrepancy between online discourse and real life dialogue. Maybe there’s something to always being mere clicks away from pictures of cats that makes us a little edgy and excitable.

“Whatever,” would be a totally reasonable response to this piece of non-news. Internet discourse is what it is, and strange, funny, depressing, and exciting as it can be, there’s maybe not that much to do about it unless you’re an advertiser trying to uncover secret socio-linguistic trends. And most of us aren’t.

Except recently there’s been something happening online that raises all kinds of questions about dialogue. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) pose so many questions that a place like Stanford asked a graduate student like me to blog about it. One of the most important of those questions, in my opinion, is the question of dialogue. Discussion. Discourse. Dialectic?

Oh my. Let’s back up and get clear on the terms of engagement here. If the question is dialogue… What really is the question? Even posing a question in the MOOCspace involves putting a stake in the ground. There are so many moving parts, so many players with so many interests, changing so quickly that it’s treacherous territory. And yet there’s a kind of push not just to ride this tsunami, but to make some kind of sense of it at the same time.

The question, then, is this. What should an online discussion on a learning platform look like? If I’m teaching a massive online course, what are my ideal forums? How do I make that ideal a reality?

There are impossibly many caveats one could deploy here. The answer to these questions will vary by discipline and instructor. There is no single ideal discussion, after all, and a good forum thread on Emily Dickinson will look very different than, say, a good forum thread on simple Bayesian models for language modeling (Because I could not stop for Bayes he kindly stopped for me). There are many purposes for discussion forums as well, ranging from “help I don’t understand this” to “help the video won’t load,” to “let’s talk about love… in Pride and Prejudice.”

It seems to me that we’re really interested in the last of these scenarios (and maybe the first, too, though I would argue that homework help done well looks a lot like substantive dialogue on a topic). Dialogue is an important part of a good learning process. Adopting and using the language of a discipline is an important part of learning the subject matter, for one thing. Moreover, some learning theorists (most notably Paulo Freire) argue that dialogue is a vitally important part of any pedagogy worth talking about. This is particularly true for any topic where conceptual understanding – as opposed to procedural knowledge – is the goal. If I want to learn how to use a toaster, I may not need much dialogue: a video lecture is probably good enough. If I want to learn how to make a toaster, we’re getting a little more complex and conceptual. If I want to understand how a toaster works and why I might make want to make toast in the first place, well, we’re gonna need to talk about it.

And talk about it we do. MOOC forums are filled with sound and fury and even, on occasion, significance. But even those forum threads that seem “good” are not dialogue, right? Or are they? And, perhaps most importantly, is there learning going on?

This last question may be impossible to answer without significantly more research. It’s a big question for MOOCs in general. Is anyone learning? (Probably) If so, who? And how can we tell? And are the forums even remotely important for that learning? Regardless of if they are or are not, can we imagine an online dialogue system where forums would be important for learning? Would it even be a traditional forum? Could it?

I don’t have answer to that question. I pose it as a design challenge: how might we create a space for online dialogue that leverages the technological infrastructure of the Internet, but retains the key pieces of good in person dialogue?

Wait, what are those key pieces? And why don’t they exist online already?

I do have an answer for these two questions. Stanford is an excellent research institution. But as good as some of the dialogues that occur here are, I’m going to defer to a place that specializes in dialogue: St. John’s College. Every class at St. John’s is a discussion. Dialogue is what they do (and yes, I went there, but that’s not the point). There’s a fascinating piece by Stringfellow Barr called “Notes on Dialogue” – a piece found in the “about” section of the college’s website, interestingly – that upperclassmen at the college surreptitiously distribute among Freshmen when they first arrive on campus. Why? Because real dialogue – dialectic, as Barr calls it – is not easy to do. Like all skills, it takes practice, and clear articulation of what it is that we should be practicing. Which gets at the second of my above questions: good dialogues don’t happen online in part because good dialogues rarely happen, period.

  • I won’t make you read the whole piece to get to the good bits. Here are the rules of thumbs and fingers, in Barr’s opinion, of a good dialogue.
  • Don’t exchange declarative monologues. “Brevity stimulates dialectic.”
  • Wild ideas are often more generative than carefully considered arguments.
  • Interrupting for clarification is always allowed. In fact, it takes precedence.
  • Practice makes perfect. Chaos is natural for beginners, but goes away with time.
  • Equal participation is not equal time. What is said is more important than who says it, as long as everyone is listening.
  • Agreeing to disagree is akin to admitting that the dialogue isn’t working. 
  • Follow the argument where it leads. Persuasion is not the goal, discovery is.
  • Hand raising – and recognition by some authority – cuts off organic conversation.
  • Participants in a dialogue should earnestly desire good for other participants, and should therefore listen closely to each other.
  • Even serious dialogue can and should be more playful than somber.

You may disagree with some of these tenets, of course, but they do compose a coherent and, I believe, effective system for good dialogue. So why don’t these things exist online? Well, online discussion forums aren’t remotely designed to support the kind of dialogue Barr advocates.

  • By their very nature, most forums encourage or even demand declarative monologue. Brevity – when witty – may stimulate up votes, but it doesn’t stimulate dialectic.
  • Because forums last well beyond the moment when a student presses “post,” it’s hard not to be careful about what we say.
  • Asking for clarification is difficult to do gracefully online. “What do you mean?” Sounds better in person than it looks in a thread.
  • Practice may still improve our online discussion habits, but chaos hardly seems to go away. Indeed, one of the appeals of online forums is how chaotic they can be. Twitter without chaos would hardly be Twitter.
  • Who said it counts. Sometimes it counts for too much.
  • Agreeing to disagree is a way of declaring a truce online, and anyone who has moderated a forum knows that you’re lucky to get that.
  • It is easy for forums to turn into a battle for authority. Persuasion wins, and in such an environment an effort at genuine co-discovery often feels fake.
  • None need raise their hands in a forum, but there is also no requirement to follow upon the statement of those who went before you. Each poster has the authority to create a new thread, and to without her participation from another thread. It’s hard to forge dialogue without participation.
  • Because we so often don’t know each other online, it’s not always easy to want good for each other. Anonymity breeds distance.
  • It is not always easy to tell the difference between playful and somber online, between serious and sarcastic, between a genuine confession and a knowing wink.

Does this mean that online discussions are impossible? No, far from it. Something – some knowledge – is exchanged when people congregate on a forum and share ideas. I pose this list of ideals not as a perscription, but as a challenge and a puzzle. The fundamental question is not “how can we make online discussions more like good face to face discussions?” Much as I’d like to answer that question, it avoids an important reality: online environments are not face to face environments. Some of the shortcomings above are due to the design of forums in particular, but some are due to the Internet itself. And that’s fine!

The more important question is this: what do you want out of your online discussions? What kind of dialogue do you want to support? What kind of learning should that dialogue lead to? Barr was designing for a certain kind of  exploratory learning. He describes an idealized vision of sustained and shared inquiry into philosophical, ethical, and epistemological questions. And for that kind of dialogue, traditional forums aren’t going to work. But for making toast – a perfectly suitable endeavor! – they more than suffice.

Written by Paul Franz, doctoral student in the Graduate School of Education