Tag Archives: discussion

Watching learners with laptops – what’s really going on?

Jonathan Martin is the principal of a 1:1 laptop school school in Arizona. In a recent issue of Connected Principals he reports on his experience with observing students at work by Standing in the Back, Watching the Screens.

This article raises all sorts of  issues – including what (if any) internet filtering schools should implement. But what really interested me was his observation that students changed what they were doing on their laptops depending on what else was happening in the classroom:

When the topics appeared relevant to students, the note-taking pages appeared; when the topics veered to the arcane and irrelevant, the screens veered to facebook, gaming sites, and other distractions…

When [the] teacher moved towards more discussion, though, asking questions to facilitate conversation… Nearly half of the screens veered away from both note-taking pages and distractions; appearing instead were google, wikipedia, and other information source sites.

This seems very positive – students appeared to be responding to classroom discussion activities to maximise their own ability to contribute. However, the report does raise a few issues:

  • In my experience, students don’t always know what is relevant information and what is ‘arcane and irrelevant’. So there is a risk that a student with little prior knowledge will assume something is irrelevant when it is not.
  • Discussion is not always about ‘finding the right answer’, so searching the web is not always a good strategy. For example, a teacher may want to explore learners’ prior knowledge in order to help them acquire new learning – a sound constructivist learning strategy. If learners immediately turn to an external information source rather than reflect on their own understanding and experience this would tend to undermine the effectiveness of the activity.

I’m not arguing here that students should not be in charge of their own learning. But teachers do need to take a proactive role in guiding the learning process. Both issues suggest that making the learning process explicit is important:

  • If something is likely to seem irrelevant to students, point out why it is in fact important. And if it really isn’t important and relevant, drop it!
  • Make it clear that not all learning is about ‘finding the right answers’ from an external source. Discuss why making prior knowledge explicit is an important stage in the learning process.

What do you think?

Assessing what’s important in online discussion

One of the problems with assessment is common to all forms of measurement: ”what is easy to measure may not be important, what is important is often hard to measure.” This is true of online assessment as well as more traditional forms.

The assessment dilemma


This dilemma can cause assessment developers to assess what is less important: they focus on easily quantifiable criteria or standards but neglect to include more important criteria because they are not so easily quantified or measured.

In assessment of online discussion, we see the effects of this dilemma when assessment criteria call for a quantifiable contribution from learners: ‘At least 3 contributions to the forum’ or ‘One forum thread started and responses to at least three others’. This can lead to lightweight discussion as learners post superficial responses to achieve their tally. And this of course is contagious – every lightweight posting says to everyone else: ‘Look, this is all you need to do’. Even worse, genuinely thoughtful postings can get lost in the tide of mediocre ones.

To avoid this, we need to focus on what really is important: usually, what we’d like to see each learner achieve is something like ‘Make a significant contribution to the development of ideas through the discussion forum‘. But since that is clearly more subjective and harder to measure, we need to spell out how this might occur and what it might look like:

  • Contributes original ideas which are relevant and well-developed
  • Provides significant insights into the existing body of literature
  • Helps synthesise ideas and concepts
  • Contributes detailed and relevant examples from their own practice
  • Helps others to explore ideas in depth

Of course, such a list is still relatively subjective – but it does start to establish what is important to me as an educator. And since I’d rather see one ‘significant’ posting than ten which don’t really add anything substantial, I prefer to avoid the use of quantitative measures when developing rubrics and other assessment tools.