To humanize distance learning, this professor teaches netiquette, forms de facto study groups, and takes part in student discussions.
Professor of Political Science, Northern Illinois University
PhD, MA, and BA in Political Science
Scot Schraufnagel, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Northern Illinois University, cites two key dates in his teaching career.
“I’ve been teaching since 1994 and teaching online since 2002,” he says. “I was a pioneer with online teaching. Not many were doing it back then.”
Like many pioneers, he did not start out knowing where he would end up. He certainly did not plan to be an educator.
“I’m a political scientist first and initially wondered, ‘Should I run for public office?’” he says. “Ultimately, I felt like I could do the most good in the classroom.”
He did not plan to teach online, either. When the University of Central Florida in Orlando hired him after he completed a PhD degree at Florida State University, the department required all teachers to do two things: take a class in online teaching and offer an online course in their first year. (Fun fact: UCF is now held up as a model of online teaching best practices.)
Beyond the Classrooms (Real and Virtual)
In addition to being an educator, Schraufnagel is a researcher, writer, and political science expert whose specialties are the U.S. Congress, political parties, and elections. He is the author and coauthor of four books, 24 peer-reviewed journal articles, and numerous book chapters. His published works have dealt with public policy innovations, effective institutional election policies worldwide, partisan difference in the US Congress, and the factors associated with productive legislatures. His 2011 book titled Third Party Blues: The Truth and Consequences of Two-Party Dominance addresses the lack of third-party success in US elections. The book has been widely read and has received positive reviews from scholarly sources.
“I have to confess, I was forced into online teaching,” he says. “I was skeptical—it can’t be as good as face-to-face. I was frustrated the first time I taught online, since there were no protocols in place to get the kind of interaction I expected in a class.”
In an effective, well-conceived, in-person brick-and-mortar classroom, he says, “there’s faculty-student and student-student interaction. Participation is required.”
So, six years ago, he made participation mandatory in his online classes too, by adding required online discussions board assignments to those classes.
“We know that when students interact with each other, it increases learning,” says Schraufnagel. “When they have to elaborate on a topic, for example, that improves understanding and retention of material.”
Of course, solving one challenge with an innovative idea looked better on paper—or on the computer screen. As he began to implement his program, Schraufnagel realized that these required online discussion assignments presented some challenges of their own.
Challenge: Disinterest, disconnection, and discourteousness
It all started when Schraufnagel’s students described his online discussion assignments in the worst possible way: as “busywork.” Schraufnagel says that students really push back against coursework that they feel is a waste of time. He does not blame them a bit, given their packed academic schedules and outside work; however, that did not mean he was going to throw in the towel.
In the six years since he added required online discussion assignments to his online course curriculum, Schraufnagel has been keeping track of online teaching challenges, and his list includes:
- Students view discussion assignments as not worthwhile (busywork).
- There is a disconnect between discussion assignments and course content.
- There is a disconnect between discussion assignments and exams.
- Students complete the discussion assignments at the last minute and all at once.
- Students stray from relevant content in their discussion posts.
- Discussion assignments are sloppy and little thought is put into them.
- Students respond as they would in a chat room—extemporaneously and without thoughtful consideration.
- Discussions sometimes turn uncivil.
Innovation: Adding ongoing value to online discussion
Schraufnagel’s required online discussion assignments are innovative because they systematically, one by one, address all of the challenges he has faced. As a result, he has created a model centered on what he refers to as “prolonged engagement.”
First, he instituted weekly turn-ins, instead of handing out assignments all at once with an everything-by-the-end-of-semester deadline.
“By structuring weekly discussion boards with clear-cut rules, this forces students to be engaged consistently throughout the semester, and keeping students consistently engaged is key to success.”— Scot Schraufnagel, PhD
“If a student can complete everything in two weeks at the start or the end of the course, then the class is of less value,” he notes. “By structuring weekly discussion boards with clear-cut rules, this forces students to be engaged consistently throughout the semester, and keeping students consistently engaged is key to success.”
Schraufnagel addresses the previous disconnects by tying the weekly discussions to his weekly quizzes. He also uses the weekly discussion assignments as de facto study groups so that students are regularly connecting with the same few classmates every week; this helps them develop rapport and connection, so they will not feel as though they are trading random posts with strangers.
“Students are also less likely to misbehave if the discussions are more structured,” he says. “Part of my motivation is to create civility, especially with a contentious topic like political science.”
Schraufnagel currently uses his required online discussion assignments for three different online classes: Political Parties and Elections, The U.S. Congress, and State and Local Government. But he says they could be used in any online class. He adds that the current cap on class size is 50, but he is trying to keep it to 25–30, which he thinks is closer to ideal.
“We know that when students interact with each other, it increases learning. When they have to elaborate on a topic, for example, that improves understanding and retention of material. And if I just lecture and they just take notes, then they are not engaged. ”— Scot Schraufnagel, PhD
Course: POLS 307 Political Parties and Elections
Frequency: One module, one online discussion, and one quiz per week for 15 weeks
Class size: 25–30
Course description: Examination of the development, organization, and functions of political parties and elections in the American political system. Topics include the nature and function of political parties, nominations and elections, political campaigns and campaign finance, voting behavior and party realignment issues, and the role of the party in government policy-making.
POLS 307 Political Parties and ElectionsSee materials
Lesson: Prolonged engagement in online discussion groups
Schraufnagel’s required online discussion assignments replicate the classroom experience by getting students engaged in a new way. For educators who want to replicate his approach, he offers these suggestions:
Start by introducing the real you
When you first “e-meet” the students, Schraufnagel suggests this: “Humanize yourself—move away from sterility. Convey caring and passion.” He also recommends including a photo of yourself in the online materials; for example, include snapshots with people you love doing something you love, perhaps while on vacation. Make your bio personal, too, he says: Share your outside interests as well as what makes you passionate about teaching, such as a commitment to helping students learn how to respectfully engage in discourse on controversial topics.
Build groups in a way that fosters engagement
Six is the ideal number for a discussion group, says Schraufnagel. Too many is not intimate; too few lacks diversity, he explains. “You want the groups to get to know each other,” he says. “Who’s the obstinate one? Who’s the eager beaver?”
He ensures diversity by choosing seven groups at random before the course opens. Just for fun, he provides them with group names, usually around a theme. A recent session’s groups were named after major cities—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and San Antonio—since the class focused on state and local government. “Students engage more by identifying with a named group,” he says.
Note: In the discussion boards, the groups interact only with other members in their own group, though all seven groups receive the same topic prompts.
Explain the gist of the assignment
This may be a student’s first online class, so Schraufnagel does not make any assumptions about their understanding of how it will work. He tells students he will provide posts representing topic “threads” and students will respond to the different topics/threads. They will need a total of three quality posts to earn full credit for these assignments.
“Most of the information for the posts should be drawn from course content—in particular, the audio files and the textbook,” he tells them. “However, you can bring information in to the discussion from outside sources if you feel it will help your group members understand some concept and will result in students being better prepared for the quizzes.”
Get even more specific in the rubric
“I have refined my rubric and continue to refine it on an ongoing basis as needed,” says Schraufnagel. “I learned a few things the hard way, such as telling students not to repeat each other’s comments.”
While a quality post is based on the judgment of the professor, Schraufnagel tells students that normally this simply means meeting the following requirements: It must be between 30 and 60 words in length, must not repeat information already on the discussion thread, must provide information that is accurate and not misleading, and must not contain serious grammatical errors.
“I require that students use complete sentences and write well, even though I am not teaching writing. Doing this forces students to think carefully and not treat the online discussions as throwaway chats they’d have in a chat room or on instant messaging.”— Scot Schraufnagel, PhD
Pay attention to grammar
Students must proofread their posts carefully to earn full credit. “I require that students use complete sentences and write well, even though I am not teaching writing,” he says. “Doing this forces students to think carefully and not treat the online discussions as throwaway chats they’d have in a chat room or on instant messaging.”
Provide a crash course in “netiquette”
One side benefit of this course is that students learn the rules of Internet etiquette (netiquette). Schraufnagel shares with his class that many of these “rules of the road” (or “rules of the information superhighway”) apply to email as well as to online discussions. So what they learn may serve them well in other communications, too.
He has identified 14 rules, and he requires students to follow all of them when posting to the discussion boards. Rule 5, for instance, is more of a tip that applies to both discussions and e-mail: “Compose your message in your Word-processing application in order to check spelling, punctuation, and grammar,” he notes. “Then copy and paste your composition into email or the discussion. This also saves online time.” (The rest of his rules are included in the sidebar at the end of this article.)
Schraufnagel’s Crash Course in “Netiquette”
Schraufnagel requires that his students follow these 14 rules when posting or replying to one of his discussion boards:
- During a discussion assignment, deadlines for posting to and replying will be specified with each assignment. Always check the discussions multiple times during the week.
- If you want to send a personal message to the instructor or to another student, use email rather than the discussions.
- Use the appropriate Discussion Topic; don't post everything on the “Main” Discussion Topic.
- Be patient. Don't expect an immediate response when you send a message.
- A helpful hint for use with both discussions and e-mail: Compose your message in your Word-processing application in order to check spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Then copy and paste your composition into email or the discussion. This also saves online time.
- Everyone should feel free to participate in class and online discussions. Regular and meaningful discussion postings constitute a substantial portion of your grade.
- Respect each other's ideas, feelings and experiences.
- Be courteous and considerate. It is important to be honest and to express yourself freely, but being considerate of others is just as important and expected online, as it is in the classroom.
- Explore disagreements and support assertions with data and evidence.
- "Subject" headings: use something that is descriptive and refer to a particular assignment or discussion topic when applicable. Some assignments will specify the subject heading.
- Use the "reply" button rather than the "compose" button if you are replying to someone else's posting.
- Do not use postings such as "I agree," "I don't know either," "Who cares," or "ditto." They do not add to the discussion, take up space on the discussions, and will not be counted for assignment credit.
- Avoid posting large blocks of text. If you must, break them into paragraphs and use a space between paragraphs.
- Use the Technical Discussion topic for assistance with technical issues. Use the Help Discussion topic for questions about course material or assignments. There will be specific discussion topics for particular discussions—pay close attention to the assignment, and post appropriately.
Time-box the assignments—reasonably
This professor gets that the value of an online class is asynchronous. Students work it into their busy schedule—e.g., those with jobs or family obligations can do their schoolwork at more convenient times.
But one of Schraufnagel’s secrets is making the class synchronous, too—at least to a point. Students have 36 hours from the time he makes the discussion assignment available to the time he grades them. It is a busy 36 hours for himself, he admits, but a 2-hour window would be too short for these time-strapped students. Still, he says, all of them can get the work done within a 36-hour window.
Check posts before the discussion closes
Schraufnagel tells students that he may delete their posts if they provide misleading or confusing information. “Deleted posts will not earn any points,” he tells them. “If you see your post has been deleted and there is still time remaining, you may repost to complete the assignment and earn the maximum number of points.”
Incivility, of course, or not adhering to his other rules of netiquette would also be grounds for deletion.
Reach out to a student who is struggling
Schraufnagel feels that, though the class is online, there are times when, as a teacher, you need to step from behind the computer and connect face-to-face or by phone. “I don’t hesitate to reach out in real time if a student isn’t participating or performance on quizzes is poor,” he says. Some students may not realize that they are not on target to do well in the course, so he does not advise waiting for them to make the first move.
Put yourself into the discussion groups, too
While the online discussion forum is meant to facilitate engagement among students, Schraufnagel says instructors should not be mere observers to the conversation.
“[In an online course,] the discussion boards are where you get to actually teach,” he says. You get to engage with students, ask questions, and explore topics—and do all those things that you would do naturally in a classroom setting.
It takes a lot of time and effort to create and maintain such a high bar for online course interactivity, notes Schraufnagel.
“Managing these online discussion assignments is very time-consuming for the teacher, but I’m doing it because it’s effective,” he says. “And I save myself time because I have well-defined rubrics and the quizzes are graded by the computer.”
“My online courses are an easy A if you follow directions,” says Schuafnagel. “And doing what’s required leads to quality learning.”
He provides a very well-defined rubric so the students know what is expected of them.
“The first time they get a grade that reflects their lack of attention to the online discussions—such as the student didn’t respond or the responses were too superficial or poorly constructed—they realize that this is a serious component,” he says.
Students love Schraufnagel’s online courses, and his student evaluations reflect that. Here are some recent verbatim comments from course evaluations:
“I have to thank you for being a truly outstanding professor. Your obvious passion for teaching and dedication to us as students is truly inspiring. Being a student, it was refreshing to have a professor who truly cared about the success of his students.”
“I just wanted to say thank you as I really enjoyed your class. It took me awhile to decide to go back to school and the online classes have made it very convenient. Of the six on-line courses I have taken, I liked your format the best. I also appreciate you letting me respectfully dispute a couple of the questions I missed.”
“I just wanted to tell you that, previously taking your State and Local Government course has been super handy to me. I thought I should send you a friendly email stating that I feel I learned a lot from your class and it’s pretty cool applying those skills already.”
“I just wanted to thank you for a great three classes I was able to take with you. I learned a lot, and am glad I was able to take my last final in your class.”
“I want to thank you for being a supportive and encouraging teacher to your students.”
Schraufnagel is not planning any additional changes to his current online discussion board setup, but rest assured, if any challenges or opportunities arise, this pioneer will innovate changes, post them online, and click refresh.