Assignments And Deadlines Cause Online Course Discussions To Fail

Concurrent Session 6
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

Best practices for online discussion recommend thoughtful assignments, detailed grading rubrics, and deadlines to allow instructor feedback. These seemingly sound pedagogical recommendations ignore the social context of discussions (i.e., peer-to-peer) and the role time plays in producing them. We present data from Yellowdig partners suggesting that many existing best practices are a major contributor to, as opposed to a remedy for, poor discussion outcomes.


Brian Verdine, Ph.D., is Yellowdig's Head of Client Success. He received his doctorate in Psychology from Vanderbilt University's Peabody College and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the School of Education at the University of Delaware, where he was appointed and continues to be an Affiliated Assistant Professor. His research background involves learning from technology and informal-learning activities. In addition to overseeing student support, in his position at Yellowdig he mines data from instructors and Yellowdig's platform to understand how Yellowdig can be applied best and to make product recommendations that improve student and instructor outcomes.
Tyler Rohrbaugh is the Head of Client Partnerships for Yellowdig, a Philadelphia-based EdTech company that works with some of the top institutions in the world to improve student engagement and retention. Having joined the company in Summer 2017, he prides himself on building strong relationships with the administrators, professors, and course designers he works with, and in identifying new ways that they can use Yellowdig technologies to see improvements across the KPIs that they care about most. Tyler received his MBA with specialization in Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management from Drexel University's Lebow College of Business, where he also completed his undergraduate studies and continues to guest lecture in undergraduate and graduate Marketing courses.

Extended Abstract

Many degree programs and courses include online discussions designed to engage students, promote critical thinking, increase topic relevance, help students network, etc. In many of these spaces, instructors and course designers follow long-standing best practices for online discussion and course design; they set up weekly assignments, expending considerable effort creating them, they enforce their rules, and carefully grade with a thoughtful rubric, only to be met with disappointing output and conversations from students. Adding insult to injury, many students feel discussions are “busy work” and add little value to their learning experience. This paradigm itself also tends to encourage procrastination, which collapses the timeline of student posting in a way that negates the possibility of having a back-and-forth discussion. These kinds of failures tend to be puzzling and frustrating to many instructors who continuously hear that students want and need places to engage and discuss course content with one another.

Many of the recognized “best practices” for online discussion that instructors follow, particularly the use of time-bound assignments and grading, ignore the social context in which real peer-to-peer conversations happen and they create too strong of a focus on student-to-instructor transactions. The traditional rules of discussion forums, which often require a post that can be graded, also focus students too heavily on new content creation rather than the consumption and discussion of existing content. Assignments also do not allow students to discuss things they may need to discuss or would find value in, so they fail to meet the actual needs of many students, do not build a strong community atmosphere, and offer few of the benefits of student interactions and networking that many instructors hope to promote. In short, they are costly for instructors and students while failing to achieve most of their stated objectives.

The assignments and weekly topics that are the hallmark of traditional discussions are often considered the solution to getting students to talk. In reality, these approaches are a major cause of poor conversations, even when weekly prompts are thoughtfully created by expert instructors and course designers. Assignments lead to a constricted conceptualization of the purpose of online spaces. Further, students write responses that cater to instructors, not other students. Most importantly, weekly assignments lead to a weekly cadence where even the go-getter students learn to procrastinate; they cannot finish their assignments until others post, so they wait until the deadline. Ultimately, many of the recommended best practices for online discussion actually tamp down interesting, meaningful, back-and-forth conversations and prevent the formation of healthy online learning communities. It is the group experience within a healthy community that ultimately produces the desired benefits of online discussions.

Yellowdig’s design enables assignment-free conversations where desired community-building behaviors are amplified by a point system that encourages positive student-to-student interactions and engaged conversations. This system was developed over time based on a substantial amount of data with a widely varied set of partners. The session is headed by Brian Verdine, Ph.D., Yellowdig’s Head of Client Success and an affiliated Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Delaware. It will be co-presented by Tyler Rohrbaugh, Yellowdig’s Head of Client Partnerships. They will blend knowledge gained from college teaching experiences, interactions with professors at Yellowdig’s 50+ partner institutions, and data from Yellowdig’s 200,000+ active users to explore how to create real conversations and build online communities.

The presentation will focus on understanding how pedagogical design, and specifically weekly assignments with deadlines, negatively influence conversations and learning outcomes. Dr. Verdine will go into detail about the pedagogical philosophy and psychology behind many Yellowdig features, which will help attendees understand both why Yellowdig works and appreciate how they can improve their own approach to online discussions regardless of the technology used. Though the data will be from the Yellowdig platform, most of the information presented will be universally applicable to encouraging peer-to-peer interaction.