Online Discussion - Paradox or Art?

There is a paradox that shadows almost all online activity: it is both isolating and bridging. We sit alone and we collaborate. We are individuals and a worldwide collective, simultaneously. When we endeavor to move classroom learning online, we are faced with this contradiction. Are we providing a fertile ground for collaboration and connection, or are we removing students from the potency of real-life, emotional and expressive interaction? One might ask, going back before social networking came on the scene, how would this question be applied to telephone conversations? To pen pal correspondences? What seems most true, is that connecting, collaborating, and growing can happen face to face and it can also happen through other mediums. That is, in essence, the function of art; to provide an alternate face through which we experience other dimensions of communication from the sender or creator. And it is not a stretch to consider the act of social networking as art.

In the classroom, students engage in a social network (an online discussion or collaboration) not to replace face to face interactions, but to enhance and enrich them with the nuanced and otherwise hidden elements that are only able to come to the fore in a non-linear, digital environment. This asynchronous learning environment is a model of constructivist education. Students learn best when their ideas and experiences collide. Nowhere is this collision handled with more elegance and flexibility than in an online discussion. Consider the difference between a verbal Socratic seminar and one that is held online:

Verbal: one student speaks at a time
Online: everyone can "speak" at any time

Verbal: listening is difficult to measure unless a student responds directly to another student
Online: listening is memorialized through commenting and responding

Verbal: impact of contributions is hard to quantify
Online: all contributions are quantified by number, length, and quality of comments

Verbal: non-answers and ineffective rhetoric can be masked or compensated for with emotional expression
Online: all answers are on an equal playing field and are judged on their merits within the constraints of written expression

Verbal: students can dominate discussion or recede entirely
Online: students are not able to dominate and shy students often contribute with enthusiasm

Verbal: students get one chance to make their communication come across
Online: students can backspace, delete, and edit their comment as they form it

Are there down sides to moving a discussion online? Certainly facial expressions and elocution in general are worthy of focus in the classroom discussion. Online discussions should not and cannot replace face to face interaction in this respect. But they can serve as a necessary supplement in light of all of the above.

Oftentimes, when a digital tool is proposed as a classroom solution, other teachers rightly pose a question, which is inevitably articulated as some version of this:

Couldn't we do the same assignment without the computer and achieve the same effect?
In other words, So what?

When it comes to online discussions and their value, there is a satisfying response to the So what question.

Online discussions are purely democratic.
Online discussions are non-linear and as a result produce more comments.
Online discussions can be reviewed and continue to live after the classroom session is over.
Online discussions require students to organize their thoughts formally because they are being published and viewed by the entire class community. Written expression is held to a higher standard than verbal expression.
Online discussions require students to synthesize many disparate comments when responding.
Online discussions provide the teacher with a document to analyze; teachers do not have to split their focus during the discussion (making notations about contributions while simultaneously leading the discussion).

Online discussion is the cornerstone of social networking. It should be leveraged in the classroom to increase motivation, increase participation, and deepen understanding. It is the most cost-effective method available -- the biggest net we have to catch the thoughts of the students all at once. What expresses as clamor in the traditional classroom becomes an elegant piece of art that all students collectively create and respond to.