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Conversation Starters: Orchestrating Asynchronous Discussion to Build Academic Community among First-year Writers

by Dan E. Seward

Publication Details

 OLOR Series:  OLOR Effective Practices
 Author(s):  Dan E. Seward
 Original Publication Date:  19 October 2017



This practice includes a sequence of discussion assignments developed to build academic community and develop academic literacies among first-year college students, a practice called orchestrated asynchronous discussion. To address the challenges of building class community and developing academic literacies, this practice takes advantage of the unique interactive and transactional features of asynchronous discussion (in accordance with CCCC OWI Principle 3), features that allow instructors to introduce students to new literacy practices in a social context and incremental manner, a process of gradual attunementas suggested in current writings on literacy pedagogy (in accordance with CCCC OWI Principle 4). At the same time, orchestrated discussion builds community  (CCCC OWI Principle 11) among participants by encouraging purposeful direct engagement with each other's postings.

Resource Contents

1. Contexts for Effective Practice

[1] The practice consists of two parts: preparatory discussion design and real-time instructor orchestration. The discussion design comprises a sequence of posting assignments, each including two or more prompts—the score in the orchestral metaphor. These prompts ask students to submit writing to a series of threads (or topics, depending upon the discussion platform). The threads are organized into separate discussion boards, which are introduced in stages corresponding to the movements of the orchestrated conversation. To encourage students to explore themes in a purposeful, yet open-ended, manner, I use various genres of prompts that allow for both direction and improvisation in students’ performance within the movements. During the discussion, the instructor takes on supporting roles in modeling conversational moves and encouraging reflection.

Note: This OLOR Effective Practice piece is a companion to the article "Orchestrated Online Conversation," which was published in Research in Online Literacy Education. The ROLE article provides a more extensive discussion of relevant scholarly literature on teaching writing using online discussion forums.

2. Challenges Addressed by this Effective Practice

[2] The posting sequence discussed in the implementation section below was most fully developed in the context of two first-year composition courses: one, a four-credit course treating analytical essays and researched argumentation; the other, a two-credit bridge course on writing research papers. Both courses were offered in online and hybrid formats, and both were also partially accelerated (12 versus 16 weeks and 6 versus 8 weeks, respectively). Moreover, the hybrid sections met only once a week, a scheduling provision that, like the accelerated and online formats, was intended to accommodate a non-traditional student body juggling full-time jobs (or multiple part-time jobs) and family life. Altogether, these factors challenged the formation of class community (CCCC OWI Principle 11) due to infrequent synchronous interaction and, for online-only classes, physical distance, with students taking classes from Iraq to Indiana. At the same time, these students faced more commonly recognized challenges of first-year writing, those associated with the acquisition of academic literacy practices that may not jibe with past communicative experiences.

[3] To address the challenges of building class community and developing academic literacies, I took advantage of the unique interactive and transactional features of asynchronous discussion (in accordance with CCCC OWI Principle 3), features that enabled me to introduce students to new literacy practices in a social context and incremental manner, as suggested in current writings on literacy pedagogy (in accordance with CCCC OWI Principle 4). More specifically, orchestrated discussion has the following benefits for online teaching:

  • Orchestrated discussion provides a framework for balancing directive guidance with open-ended student performances. The framework includes a repertoire of discussion prompts accommodating variability in the scope and nature of instructive guidance. It also establishes various roles for instructors to play while the discussion is underway, giving them occasion to chime in by modeling, encouraging reflection, and offering feedback. Altogether, the framework helps me ensure that students’ contributions to the discussion go in a purposeful direction, one aligned with desired learning outcomes. 
  • Orchestrated discussion provides a means to introduce students to new literacy practices in an incremental and interactive manner. As noted above, the repertoire of prompts described below vary in their degree of direction. However, they also accommodate variety in the scope of the writing tasks and the forms of interactivity. By conceptualizing a series of discussion assignments as movements towards a culminating demonstration of new literacy practices within an in-depth exploration of class themes, orchestrated discussion helps me treat the development of literacy practices as a coordination of more discrete discursive moves.
  • Orchestrated discussion encourages reflective and collaborative language practice. These online discussions provide students with a reviewable record of how they and their classmates respond to both directive and open-ended prompts surrounding a common theme. As a result, orchestrated discussion helps the class—both me and the students—talk about writing and reading as both a negotiation with predetermined guides (conventions) and an exchange of perspectives. The result is that students see better the value of peer contributions even as they learn how to take advantage of conventional forms of interaction to advance their own interests. 
  • Orchestrated discussion can help students discover affinities upon which to build communal relationships. Besides helping students recognize and use conventional literacy practices, a combination of purposeful direction and more open-ended interactions can help students quickly recognize and develop shared affinities within the ongoing exploration of class themes. As students see other responding to their own topics of interest, they begin to see the developing discussion as a collective endeavor to advance knowledge about the topic, which is the goal of an academic discourse community.

3. Overview of Orchestrated Discussion

[4] Orchestrated discussion comprises a deliberately coordinated sequence of discussion assignments, each including two or more posting prompts—the score in the orchestral metaphor. Each assignment has a corresponding discussion board and represents a movement in the orchestrated conversation. Moreover, each assignment also asks students to engage directly with other students’ postings, especially by performing analytical reading of classmates’ contributions. With each movement in the orchestrated conversation, the instructor leads students—in an incremental and interactive manner—from familiar forms of literacy practice to newer or more advanced forms of analysis and expression, presumably those reflecting the desired outcomes of the course or unit.

3.1. Discussion Design

[5] The number of movements in each orchestrated discussion depends on the kinds of writing students are learning, as well as on the backgrounds of the students themselves, in particular, the literate practices they can be assumed to have upon entering into the discussion. In composing assignments for the orchestrated conversation, instructors may find it useful to focus on the types of prompts that can be used to elicit particular kinds of performances from students. To encourage students to explore class or unit themes in a purposeful, yet open-ended manner, I assign the following genres of discussion postings:

  • Instrumental overtures: These opening posts call for an initial performance from students, but not simply by way of responding to simple “icebreaker” prompts. Rather, these prompts ask students to write in a familiar genre (the “instrument”) on a more or less broad theme (i.e., one relevant to the class or unit). Students thereby introduce themselves through their personalized interpretations of genre and theme.
  • Improvisational interludes: While the initial overture posts described above necessitate students’ personalization of directive prompts, there is value in providing space too for more open interaction, in particular, by encouraging casual replies to classmates. These postings offer students another way to amplify topics they find engaging, particularly by discovering and reinforcing common affinities with classmates.
  • Counterpoint contributions: For counterpoint postings, students perform directed interactions with each other’s earlier postings to develop topics that engage them. Counterpoint prompts ask students to take the initial thematic keynotes established by the “overtures” in new directions. These posting assignments can take a variety of forms, but they generally direct students to amplify, redirect, or provide contrast to classmates’ earlier treatments of class themes. Moreover, they provide opportunities for students to perform discrete kinds of analytic reading or critical response, that is, the kinds of discursive moves entailed in more sophisticated forms of literacy practice.
  • Purposeful recapitulations: In the later movements of the orchestrated conversation, students recapitulate meaningful themes in more developed forms of writing, particularly, in forms representing the new kinds of literacy practice students are learning.

3.2. Instructor Orchestration

[6] The “conductor” position within the orchestrated conversation entails three key roles, each positioning the instructor as mentor in the academic discourse community:

  • Lead instrumentalist: Instructors post examples to model discursive moves.
  • Reflective practitioner: Outside the discussion itself, instructors call attention to student performances illustrating various conversational moves and developments, including interesting points about the theme or participants’ varied approaches to the theme.
  • Performance reviewer: While simple class participation credit might be offered for postings, discussion assignments can serve as a low-stakes opportunity to introduce and apply common criteria for evaluating academic discourse, either with grades or discursive responses.

[7] The first of the two videos accompanying this write-up  (immediately below) reviews the concepts associated with orchestrated conversation. For a more detailed discussion of orchestrated conversation, please read my companion article in Research in Online Literacy Education. The second video provides details about how I have used the practice in first-year writing classes. More specifically, the second video (linked further below) focuses primarily on prompt design. The remainder of this write-up focuses on logistical details associated with setting up the assignments.

Video 1: Overview of Orchestrated Conversation

4. Example Implementation: Orchestrated Discussion in First-Year Writing

[8] The implementation explained below has been used in the two entry-level writing classes described above. These asynchronous discussion assignments complement each course’s formal paper assignments. As we reach the midpoint of the class, the orchestrated discussion begins to merge with the formal paper writing process, once students start to do exploratory research for their final research paper. This step precedes the submission of a formal topic proposal, which is the focus of the final movement in the orchestrated discussion. The overarching strategy of the discussion design is to transform the initial semi-formal conversation about students’ social, civic, and vocational lives—the broad themes driving these first-year writing courses—into an academic conversation on related subjects, a conversation that students develop with greater analytical depth and critical thinking, as well as by synthesizing their voices with those of outside sources.

4.1. Context of Discussion Assignments within Course

[9] As noted above, this strand of course activity occurs alongside other coursework during the first half of class until it finally intertwines with the formal final paper assignment (see Figure 1 immediately below for an overview and Table 1 further below for details). In terms of the course grade, the entire sequence of postings contributes partly to class participation credit (15% of the class grade), but it is also allocated about 20% of the overall course points, a portion that is justified especially by the later postings, which in more traditional classes might be completed offline in conventional forms (e.g., annotated bibliographies) and receive substantial points. But the allocation of substantial points to bulletin board discussions has an important benefit in itself: it validates the online modality—and discussion forums in particular—as a place for serious coursework, especially by integrating an institutional practice (i.e., grading) that, for better or worse, is recognized as a key measure of seriousness for college coursework. Of course, the grading is complemented by other forms of reinforcement, particularly by both peer and instructor validation in replies and responses within the discussion.

Figure 1: The Big Picture--Visual Representation of Table 1 below

Visual rendition of four-part orchestrated conversation--reflects contents of Table 1 below.

4.2. Pacing of Posting Assignments

[10] In the scheme described below, students complete the first postings as they begin the first week of class, an assignment due by midweek for online-only sections and before the first class meeting for one-night-a-week hybrid sections. For both formats, students receive their first assignment before the first week of class to allow them to begin interacting before the first synchronous meeting—there are almost always a few who do. However, when I have used a similar discussion practice while teaching standard-paced sections in traditional face-to-face university settings, I have introduced the first posting assignment on the first day of class, making it due before a later session the same week. In any case, the pacing of the subsequent postings depends upon other class activities. The sequence described below has typically been spread over the first half of the class (3-7 weeks, depending upon the acceleration of the course), leading up to the point where students submit a formal topic proposal for their culminating class research project (as noted above).

4.3. Discussion Board Logistics

[11] The postings are conducted on four separate discussion boards (or forums, depending on the platform), and each board corresponding to a movement in the orchestrated discussion. The first threads (or topic posting) in the first movement are initiated by the instructor, but later ones are created by students, reflecting the discussion topics they found interesting the first movement. The posting instructions for both initial thread postings and later response postings are explained in full on assignment sheets, which also have a one-to-one correspondence with the movements in the orchestrated discussion. Where appropriate, the forums themselves contain initial postings created by the instructor, either a directive posting (repeating the prompt explained on the assignment sheet) or a model posting (or both).

4.4. Developing Conversations

[12] After the first movement begins, later assignments ask students to review earlier postings and process them in a meaningful way, in some cases, by replying immediately to postings that catch their interests, in other cases, by analyzing their classmates’ postings and developing that analysis into an opening post in a subsequent movement of the orchestrated conversation. We review the work on the discussion boards weekly (usually within web-conferencing sessions or at the live meeting) until students start drafting their final papers after the last movement in the discussion. Throughout, the instructor contributes opening model messages to set a benchmark for the contributions during each round of postings. However, instructors can also reinforce exemplary participation and thoughtful student writing with short affirmation posts. These need not be long: a simple “good observation!” on a message or two can go a long way towards showing the whole class that the instructor does not just view the discussion as “busy work.” The only round of discussion for which I give every student a response is the topic proposal in the final movement of the discussion.

[13] The assignment sheets and discussion boards in the diagram above cross the lines for each of the four movements because students typically refer back to the preceding discussion in developing their initial posting for the next and because the first discussion actually starts before the first week’s class meeting. Simply put, the development of each movement of the orchestrated conversation involves a reprocessing of earlier posts, and so students will still be reviewing, maybe even responding to, previous discussion boards as they compose their posts for the next. This directed reviewing and reworking of topics and themes is, of course, the distinctive feature of orchestrated discussion, especially as implemented through counterpoint postings. The table below gives details about the types of postings assigned in each movement of the discussion, and the accompanying video gives full examples of posting prompts illustrating the types of prompts associated with the different genres of postings used in orchestrated conversation.

Table 1: "Conversation Starters" Score 

Movement Week 1:
Conversation Starters
Weeks 2-3:
Common Topics
Weeks 4-5:
Exploratory Research
Weeks 6-7:
Topic Proposals
Concurrent Activities and Instructional Focus Writing processes, rhetorical analysis, and critical reading Academic writing basics, peer review, and analytical writing Writing with sources and exploratory search strategies Academic topic development in anticipation of final paper (completed in weeks 8-12)
Rhetorical Analysis paper (on primary source, such as an advertisement) Position Analysis paper (on given cluster of secondary sources on common theme)
Initial posting(s) for each movement Instrumental Overtures: Students post paragraph-length responses to each of three pre-generated threads on the themes, namely, social, work, and civic life; the paragraphs reflect familiar rhetorical modes. Amplifying counterpoint: Students create threads identifying topics of interest treated by three or more classmates within the first movement; in the new thread posting students briefly explain peers’ interests in topic. Purposeful recapitulation: Students create new thread declaring a topic to research, stating personal interest and considering broader interest based on earlier postings of peers. Full academic recapitulation: Students create new threads presenting research-paper topic proposal, including a justification based on earlier findings reflecting both peer and public interests.
Follow-up posting(s) Improvisational Interlude: Students are asked to respond to two classmates whose postings engaged them. Contrasting counterpoint: Students respond by identifying gaps in earlier treatments of themes by starting threads on related topics that are nonetheless untreated so far. Redirecting counterpoint: Students respond to statements of interest (usually their own) with annotated source listings showing outside perspectives on posted topics. Academic or critical counterpoint: Students post an assessment of a peer’s proposal in the voice of an audience member, using appropriate evaluative genre.
Reflective practice (discussion points to treat in synchronous or asynchronous follow-up) Instructor calls attention to the use of generic markers in initial postings, while emphasizing role of conventions in discourse communities; class discusses postings receiving the most replies, reflecting (as a group) on why they attracted attention. Instructor calls attention to analytical practices of pattern recognition and gap identification, noting especially how these analytical “listening” approaches offer entry points for academic conversations. Instructor emphasizes the value of exploratory research for the purposes of identifying and analyzing other voices contributing to the larger conversation on the student’s topic of interest. Instructor responds to individual topic proposals directly, especially by highlighting opportunities for adding to and advancing the larger, ongoing conversation on the student’s chosen topic
Performance review Usually just class participation points, but in each movement, a few short affirmation responses directly on the forum can greatly increase student engagement, even for those not receiving them Usually just class participation points, although a quality rubric might also be used off-discussion to assess students’ use of assigned analytical reading and response techniques Evaluative rubrics and off-discussion feedback for both the statement of interest and annotated-reference postings—in addition to some affirmation postings directly in the discussion Evaluative rubrics off-discussion for topic proposals, in addition to the direct feedback posting described above; class participation points for critical responses

Video 2: Example Implementation of Orchestrated Conversation

5. Technologies and Tools Used

[15] The implementation described above and in the videos has been performed on both thread-based and topic-based bulletin-board discussion platforms linked to the class site and individual assignment pages. Regarding the “Reflective Practice” sections, although I tend to present the observations and questions through a synchronous channel (either in a web conference platform, such as Adobe Connect or Elluminate, or, for hybrid, face-to-face), these class reflections can also be conducted through asynchronous means, for instance, via a reflective blog post or on a separate discussion forum designed for course Q & A. However, I try to avoid adding even more text to an already text-heavy instructional modality. A recording of oral commentary is, of course, another asynchronous option. In fact, for the online sections, students who cannot make the meetings are required to view recording of the synchronous session.

6. Acknowledgements

[15] As the “Lead Faculty” at a contingent-only, adjunct-driven university, I was charged with developing standardized syllabi for mandated use by all writing instructors. (In other words, at this university, it was not feasible, institutionally speaking, to achieve Principle 5 except within the smallest of scopes.) After integrating the above discussion sequence into the standardized syllabi for the courses noted above, then, I am grateful for the patience, efforts, and constructive feedback provided by the many other instructors who were also required to teach this sequence, which I had adapted from my own previous work as an adjunct instructor at various institutions.

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