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September 1, 2016

Teaching at Pitt: Using all of CourseWeb’s communication tools



Instructors use CourseWeb, the University’s Blackboard-based learning management system, for sharing course content, assessing students’ knowledge and tracking grades.

But some faculty overlook CourseWeb’s powerful tools for communicating with students and facilitating discussion. Traditional and online classes can take advantage of these tools to enhance the learning experience.
Wiki: The term wiki came from the Hawaiian word for “quick.” It’s a “quick” web page because users can edit a wiki page directly from anywhere, anytime. Wikipedia is an example of how users all over the world provide and perfect explanations of everything from their own desk.

Referred to as a “wiki,” this tool allows users to create or change content at any time from any location. This means your students can collaborate on a list, a plan, a table or any kind of document at their convenience. Wiki isn’t designed for in-class simultaneous collaboration because multiple entries may not be saved properly.

Here’s one example of how a wiki can be used. A nursing instructor asks each student to enter an adjective in a class wiki that describes a good nurse. By the time the due date arrives, the students already have brainstormed a list of characteristics. If anonymity is not an issue, students can put their names next to their content. You can revert to earlier versions of an entry if necessary.

A wiki also can be used for students signing up for a presentation or office hours, thereby avoiding multiple student emails regarding preferred dates.

Blog: This term is an abbreviation of “web log,” a collection of postings by a user in reverse chronological order. You can create blogs for groups of students who can read and comment on the content. Blogs can be used as research journals that organize findings and instruments used. Since blogs can be shared, they can be used for showcasing class work with or without peer feedback.

For example, in a poetry class, if students post poems in their own blogs, this could significantly improve the quality of their work.

Students see blogs as a platform to show off their work, so they put more effort into writing.

A blog also allows students to reflect or express opinions on topics throughout a course, thereby documenting change.

Journal: This is a private space for students to write about things they don’t want to share, although the privacy settings can be adjusted for group-journaling. Since a journal is a safe self-reflection tool, students can write about challenges in the course that they would like you to know. You can observe improvements or changes over time, since journal entries are displayed chronologically. Your comments on students’ entries are not accessible to others unless they are included in a group journal.

Discussion board: As the name implies, a discussion board is a tool to facilitate discussion among your students. The specific topics or questions are known as “threads,” and typically are created by the instructor. Students can participate in a discussion and make comments on each other’s posts. You can chime in to encourage participation and guide the discussion.

One key element that makes discussions meaningful is good discussion questions. Good questions encourage participation and create meaningful interactions. Tasks such as summarizing class readings or merely commenting on original postings by other students may be viewed as tedious work by students. On the other hand, posting a response to a reading that is thought-provoking or controversial can be interesting. Since post-secondary students naturally are motivated by problem-solving tasks, questions that elicit knowledge application in real-world examples and problem-solving can spark discussions.

A discussion board is the appropriate place for virtual debates, as opposed to a blog or journal. Creating a thread for all course-related questions encourages students to help each other. You can provide answers if there are no student responses within a time frame you have determined. This will reduce the time you spend answering individual emails. You also can create a “virtual cafe” by setting up a thread to encourage students to share non-course-related information. This can help students bond with each other.
All of these tools allow you and your students to share links, embed photos and videos, as well as attach many common file types such as PDFs, Word documents and PowerPoint slides. If implementing these tools seems daunting, start small by picking one and gradually introducing it into your toolbox. Regardless of the tool that you use, instruct students that any communication must be done in a respectful manner.

Meiyi Song is a teaching and learning consultant at the University Center for Teaching and Learning.

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