Critical Thinking through
Writing in Cyberspace
By Mark Crane
After requesting and setting up a class e-mail discussion list, you can take several steps to encourage appropriate and productive participation.
Decide beforehand what your role in the discussion will be. Whether you will be a full participant or a moderator depends upon your goals. Too much of an instructor presence, however, may reshape the discussion list in ways that limit participation by the students.
Ask students to respond briefly and informally to specific assignments. These assignments may include the same kinds of informal writing used in learning journals, though writing on-line has the added benefit of encouraging peer response. Like a learning journal, on-line responses give instructors feedback on what students are learning, which might differ from what instructors intend students to be learning (see link).
Consider having two similar classes subscribe to the same list. If you are teaching more than one section of the same course, or teach a course compatible with one taught by a colleague either at the University or elsewhere, having both classes subscribed to one list creates an expanded audience for your students.
Integrate into Curriculum
It’s important that discussion lists be an integral part of your curriculum. If students feel that list participation is “busy work,” participation may suffer. For example, responses may be so perfunctory that they fail to benefit your students or the class. One way to integrate discussion lists into your curriculum is to clearly spell out your expectations in your syllabus, including how you will grade list participation. Whether or not the informal writing of discussion lists is valued will be made evident by how it is assessed.
It’s also important to keep in mind that
electronic discussion lists tend to generate expressive discussion—less
formal than the more polished writing found in finished papers (or even
institutional e-mail). Instead, on-line discussions resemble the informal
discussions that take place in the hallways or in passing. Nevertheless,
they are useful because they
encourage students to ask questions that occur to them outside of class.
can be a valuable form of “pre-writing,” a way for students to informally generate ideas prior to beginning their papers.
have the advantage of being self-paced and less formal than the classroom. Often students who feel uncomfortable about contributing in class will participate in list discussions.
Some potential drawbacks exist to teaching with e-mail. For the instructor, the boundaries between home and work can start to feel precariously thin if instructors begin to answer student e-mail at home. Keep in mind that for the most part students should be writing and responding to each other, so the instructor shouldn’t feel pressured to respond to each message. In fact, too many messages from the instructor may subtly shift the emphasis of the list from dialogue to lecture.
Jeffrey Galin of the University of Pittsburgh reminds us that our conception of these electronic spaces will determine how we use them. If we think of a discussion list as a bulletin board, for example, we may use it to distribute information to our students en masse, rather than encouraging responses. This can shift the dynamics of the list from dialogue to presentation, reducing the emphasis on the critical thinking.
The same feeling of remove created by e-mail that can encourage student discussion can also lead some students to behave inappropriately at times. One way to prevent inappropriate list behavior is to spell out your expectations in advance and emphasize what the boundaries are for your course. Telling students that the same rules that apply to classroom behavior apply to the list may suffice. Internet old-timers have developed an informal code of conduct known as “netiquette” (see link).
Incorporating informal writing into your
class in the form of e-mail discussion lists gives students the opportunity
to reflect on their in-class learning at their own pace. It can generate
productive dialogue in a setting that complements the work done in class.
Finally, it gives students the chance to write about your course to an
expanded audience that provides almost immediate feedback and encourages
Click here to return to WR Resources.