I got a question from a colleague today about how to make class blogs more than just repositories for student work, where, at best, the professor comments on student posts but little interaction takes place beyond that. It got me thinking about things that I’ve done in the past to motivate students to interact with each other in the online platforms I use in my classes, so I thought I’d collate those here (listicle style!).
1. Set the social norm
Students may be unfamiliar with the norms of the online platform you’ve chosen to use in your class, whether it be Twitter, a blogging platform, or the course management software. Even if you require them to make posts there, they don’t always respond to each other because it’s safer to lurk than to breach an unspoken rule. So spell out the “rules” for them: say that it’s cool to post comments/replies to each other and to you, or acknowledge that it might feel nerdy but declare it to be “cool” in the context of your class. Some people will always feel more comfortable lurking but you’ll be giving social cover to the others who might like to speak up.
I’ve found that the only foolproof way to get all the students in the class to interact with each other online is to incentivize interaction with points that actually matter for the course grade.(Obviously, incentivizing through points will only motivate the students who care about grades, but that’s sort of the nature of the beast, isn’t it.) This might feel cheesy and inorganic at first, but it puts a framework in place through which genuine interaction can grow. You can award extra credit points for each substantive comment a student adds to other students’ posts. You can require that each student write some number of comments per week (perhaps on weeks they don’t do original posts of their own). If you use Twitter in your course, you can require them to do a minimum number of @replies to other members of the class. In my social media class, there were 2 required tweets per week, one of which had to be an @reply, and this worked out to 30 points for the semester out of 500 total – not too much but not insignificant either.
3. Require linking
I require students to use hyperlinks in their blog posts so they can get in the practice of referencing and crediting other people around the web. This means allocating a few points for each assignment to the student’s use of hyperlinks within their post. A variation on this is to require students to hyperlink to their peers’ posts within their own. This could mean requiring students to reference/build on other responses that have already been posted for the same assignment, or asking them to work in previous assignment posts into their current post (the added advantage of this being that it pushes them to recognize continuity through the course material over time). I’ve found this to be great for cultivating a sense of interaction and community in the class, because students are reading and responding to the work of people they might not otherwise speak to in the classroom setting. Also, because it incentivizes reading their peers’ work, it helps them to assess the quality of their own work. I suspect it also pushes them to produce higher quality work given that they know there will be an audience other than the instructor. While skillful hyperlinking takes some getting used to on the student’s part, it helps to point out that this actually mirrors how online discourse happens on the “real world” blogs they read: good bloggers generally reference others and signpost how they are continuing an ongoing conversation, even if it’s just links to previous articles from their own outlet. So required linking is not only productive of discursive interaction, it’s also a transferrable professional skill (always a big hit with students).
4. Include online interaction in your course participation grade
Instead of quantifying requirements for commenting, replying, and linking, you can make a general qualitative assessment of students’ participation in the class community and factor this into their participation grades. You’ll want to be very clear about what your expectations are in this regard, for some of the reasons discussed in #1 above. Students come to our classrooms with different cultural backgrounds and levels of experience with online discourse, so it’s a good idea to spell out how you define satisfactory participation. (This goes for in-class participation too!)
5. Show you’ve read the comments
It’s good to demonstrate that the students’ comments are not just falling into a void, never to be acknowledged other than through point tallies. You can respond yourself in the online platform, though I think sometimes this can actually have a chilling effect on conversation between the students there, because it could reassert you as the monitoring authority and the “last word” on the topic. Of course these power dynamics are there in the background anyway, but I suspect that organic interaction is best fostered by leaving it alone once you’ve incited it. Rather, I’ve found it best to discuss posts and comments orally during class. The students get a little moment of “fame” when their words are called out and used to further the in-class discussion. And it models that what happens online is actually relevant to what you’re doing in the classroom.
I’m sure there are many other ways to motivate students to interact with each other both in and out of the classroom, but these are methods I’ve tested that seem to work well enough. You can’t truly force students to interact with each other if they are really not enthusiastic about doing so, but I’ve found that the students who want to get something out of this kind of experience are able to do so with these kinds of frameworks in place.