Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Commenting, Part I

I wanted to respond to Sue Waters' queries:
  1. Has commenting helped your learning?  Yes or No?  Why?
  2. What advice would you give others on commenting?
  3. What else could we do to improve the process?
First, in response to the third question, I would say that there's really nothing more that you all can do. You all have already put us in positions to learn, have made the spaces available, have provided prompts, and have offered motivation. If this is truly a cMOOC, then we are the ones that have to reach out and connect. You all are NOT responsible for my learning, or my engagement.

For me, commenting is no different from any other type of writing, driven by the same goals and motivations. Writing is, first and foremost, about audience, purpose, and context. This means, of course, that commenting is about the potential for more explicit/direct engagement in ways that other more formal writing opportunities are not. This means, to me, that the writing (the commenting) requires both a more direct and a more nuanced consideration of audience, purpose, and context.

The comments that I have received have helped my learning in that they've all been very supportive, which makes me feel comfortable in the environment, which makes me want to continue. But commenting must be voluntary, whether in a MOOC or a Grade 7 classroom. To me, there is no value in commenting if it's a requirement. If it is, then too often the commenter will only be checking a box to get a grade or a pat on the head. 

If we are seeking value in our comments, then the best comments should be purposeful. While there is much to be said for the short, enthusiastic, motivational comment ("Great Job!" "Good Point!" "Thanks for the post." +1), and while there is also much to be said for the brief comment that summarizes or describes an emotional response to the post, for "learning" to occur through commenting, something with a bit more depth, we must engage. And that engagement requires time and energy.

Some writers may be able to write up a 250-500 word comment off the top of their heads, but my writing process is slower than that. I have to have some time to think, to set aside, to revise. I feel really uncomfortable when I feel rushed. In many respects, commenting blurs the lines between formal and informal exchange. It can be exploratory, or it can be critique, or it can be formative, but since I am new to this environment, it's hard to know what the purpose for the comment really might be. For example, Allan posed a question for me on his blog, and then sent me a tweet individually pointing me to his post, so I felt compelled to respond, but I was unclear about the purpose for his question or what he was hoping to learn from me. I felt like my response was hasty and a bit defensive, and I don't like feeling that way. Allan contacted me individually afterwards, and he was great, offering me his thinking. When I engage with a close colleague or a collaborator or someone with whom I have a relationship, I can be messy or uncertain. In a (semi)formal environment like this course or in the blogosphere, getting to know someone in order to project vulnerability (oftentimes a requirement for good learning) can be frightening.

But we all have to put ourselves out there (and the ET MOOC has been quite inviting). We all have to engage in order to grow. We might not necessarily need to do a long comment; we might just pose a few questions or challenge a particular point, but good learning means engagement, which should include numerous exchanges and significant thinking time. That, for me, is just a reality. Good learning takes time and energy, and good commenting takes time and energy, as well. For example, while I didn't comment on Amy Burvall's six-word story, I have shared it with friends and colleagues because it was so powerful. And I do that often: I read through a lot of posts, and are moved by many, but comment on relatively few. I try, but some comments turn into posts, and some I begin, then get distracted or called away, or can't find the right words to say, others I have written, then have been defeated by the delivery mechanism. As I've said on numerous occasions, I'm a plodder, which means that I have a number of posts from ET MOOC saved at various places in my cloud: some in my Pocket to read later and more closely, others in my inbox to comment on. For example, I would love to comment on the Academic Integrity postJoining Weight WatchersAdventures: A Choice (just to name a few), but I don't know if I'll really have the time to do so. I also want to respond to a reply to a comment that is sitting in my inbox. I have tried to comment quickly to some posts, but am uncertain how successful those comments have been, and I would like to offer something of substance to everyone, and that requires, for me, thinking and drafting and revising. Time.

Personally, one of my primary goals for the ET MOOC is quickly becoming a need to (re)construct my daily learning. I want to think of the engagement in ET MOOC, and the engagement beyond ET MOOC after it's officially completed, as a part of my daily routine. I don't want to think of this learning opportunity, and future learning opportunities like this one, as "additional" to my daily work. But that requires both adjustments and choices. Figuring out the role that commenting plays in this larger experience is, for me, an important consideration.

This is already too long for one post. I'll conclude my thinking tomorrow in Part II.


  1. Hi Ed

    Thanks for taking the time to write your posts reflecting on commenting and the learning process! Really appreciate it.

    I hope we've achieved the balance of what everyone needs. The challenge of these types of courses is the wide skill levels of participants and providing the appropriate level of support needed. My concerns are many of the participants are highly skilled and have been involved in some form of connected learning for awhile. It's very easy to cater to their needs while those newer don't receive the necessary support. I also worry those newer might give up as they feel overwhelmed by the skills of others.

    1. Ed,
      Thank you for this thoughtful post. I also carefully filter which posts look interesting to even open, then there is a second level of filtering where I'll open a post and abandon topics not on my wavelength. The third level down are the posts I actually read, and fourth, the rare few i respond to. Your post resonates with me because I also understand the need to take time, think, process, write.

    2. Thanks, Sandy. I appreciate your taking the time to respond to this post. I am in complete agreement with your levels: since I tend to want to at least glance at all of the titles in the hub, filtering like what you describe is the only thing that keeps me (relatively) sane.

    3. I understand what you mean by a need to achieve a balance. Even in class of 25, there is a wide disparity. Of course, in a class that size, it's harder for the ones who get frustrated to just fade away. In striking that balance, however, the students are still responsible for their learning. One person (or even a group of collaborators) can only do so much. As I said, if you provide opportunity and encouragement, then make yourself available for participation, in whatever way the student needs to achieve their learning goals for the course, then we have to feel like we've done our best.

      Ultimately, it comes down to whether or not you believe in connectivism or not. Do you trust connectivism as a core pedagogical tenet when offering a MOOC? Or any course, for that matter?

      I've been thinking about MOOCs quite a bit over the past year, but primarily from the perspective of a writing teacher. But that's a whole different conversation.

      Thanks again for your comment, Sue. I appreciate your thinking.

  2. Hi Ed. I came back to read your post this weekend out of my interest in learning more about commenting in the blogging environment and perhaps other discussion forums. I liked how you brought the writing process into your discussion. I have been thinking about it a lot during the past week as ETMOOC has focused on Digital Storytelling. Audience, purpose, and context - the writing process - and how do they fit into storytelling. After my first year of teaching, I participated in the Writing Project and found a variety of purposes and contexts for writing that allowed me to help my students broaden their writing. You're right that it takes time, not only to reflect and respond to posts (if it's more than "Great job!"), but to learn what I think now is a new genre of writing. Your comments were helpful to me to think about how I want to engage blog posts. Sue Waters (@suewaters) has been very helpful, as well, in carrying on a discussion for those of us who are beginning the process.

    In your post, you say, "To me, there is no value in commenting if it's a requirement. If it is, then too often the commenter will only be checking a box to get a grade or a pat on the head." I wonder if in teaching students the process of commenting, that to begin with the prescription to comment isn't a bad thing as they get their feet wet. For example, if in a class of 25 students, what if students are asked to write a post on a topic/question, then comment on the posts of two other students with a list of guidelines on how to comment/respond to others? I know there will be some students who don't engage authentically, but others will. I'm just curious what your thoughts (or other readers) are on how to teach students and get them to engage conversation on their own? I haven't listened to the last webinar Sue Waters did on "student blogging", and perhaps that will help me to find some answers.

    Thanks again, Ed...I'll head to your "Commenting: Part 2" now.

  3. I didn't really cover having a structured approached to commenting in terms of " then comment on the posts of two other students with a list of guidelines on how to comment/respond to others" during the student blogging session. But I did emphasize the need to scaffold the students where you move them teaching them the skills and slowly guiding them through the process to them becoming independent learners.

    Some educators do start with a more set structure like you are describing initially because they are introducing how to do it to their students.

  4. I want to tag on to Sue's comment, and I only have a small window of time.

    Scaffolding is an important consideration, especially when helping students understand the nuances of posting and commenting. I would, again, suggest considering the difference between classroom activities and posting/commenting in the blogosphere. In other words, I agree that students need practice, but you might do much of the scaffolding and practicing in a transparent way within a controlled space. This means, to me, that you design a space where students are commenting on posts from the class, while at the same time discussing and reflecting on how those comments are read and understood.

    For example, I might have a three-week posting/commenting practice activity. For the first week, every student in the class is asked to post to the class blog space on a particular topic that is being read about and discussed in class (say PLNs). You would introduce the features of posting and discuss posting (in general) in class. You would then ask students to draft, get feedback, revise, edit and post.

    For the second week, you would introduce the features of commenting and discuss commenting (in general) in class. You would then ask students to read everyone's posts, and then comment on at least three of them.

    The third week would then be an open reflection on posting and commenting, using examples from the class. You could lead a whole-class discussion on specific examples, you could put students in small groups to analyze examples then report out, you could put students in pairs, etc. You might conclude the activity with each student writing a short reflection on what they learned and how they will apply what they learned to their own writing processes and/or blogging practices.

    The key is helping students see how posts and comments might be read and/or understood, but in a controlled environment. You get them to do some posting and commenting without putting an requirements or restrictions (1 post of 500 words or 3 comments that do X, Y, and Z, etc.). Since their practice doesn't have requirements or restrictions, in-class discussions can, for example, move to questions of length naturally, without students worrying about meeting some arbitrary requirement for a grade.

    Obviously, this activity is not fleshed out very well, but my point is that making their practice transparent and reflective is important. The purpose of their writing can be that they are practicing, that they are building skills, all while modeling good writing strategies, such as drafting, getting feedback, revising, editing, reflecting, etc. For this kind of exercise, the content should be of minimal importance. Similarly, the "product" (the post or the comments) should be of minimal importance. This allows the writing that they do to be ungraded practice, designed to help them make connections between the abstract (what a post is, what a comment is) and their actual practices. The key, for me, is that we make our goals for the activity transparent so that they begin doing some metathinking from the outset.

    I hope that I didn't muck this up too badly, and there is probably a more articulate discussion of this kind of practice elsewhere (since I have done no reading in this area of study); in fact, I probably should have made this a separate post. But I'll leave it as is, although I would be happy to continue the conversation further if you want.

    Thanks again for your comments. They really pushed my thinking.

  5. Hi Ed

    I agree and this would be a good approach. Main thought I have is you'll find individuals vary in terms of how much scaffolding they require. I like to use the analogy of learning to drive a car. Some people pick it up really quickly while others need to be supported for longer. So I think you need to follow this process while also continuing to model how it is done and provide additional support to those that need it.

    Thanks for pushing both of our thinking!

  6. Thanks, Sue.

    As I said, the example I offered was not really fleshed out, but I would add that an activity like the one I described provides a range of ways to model and reflect, no matter the skill level of individuals. In other words, the teacher can lead a discussion to model good practices using a range of examples, or can put groups together based on skill-level (all same skill-levels or varied skill-levels), or can ask small groups to analyze examples in specific ways, then report back to the class on what each group learned about best practices from their example, etc. etc. etc.

    On another note: can commenting "conversations" continue indefinitely? Or do they move to different venues? When (and why) would that occur, in your experience?

  7. Hi Ed, a good commenting conversation leads to other bloggers writing their own posts to reflect on the conversation, like you have done here, and may also lead to separate conversations on other social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Google+.

    To discuss if commenting conversations can continue indefinitely I need to talk about engagement measures. You'll normally find the most activity within the first few days of the post being written. It's very similar to the other engagement indicators. For example, the number of shares on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook in the first 24 hours provides an indication on the impact the post is making. So if the engagement is comments you'll find the first 24 hours commenting activity gives you a feel of the level of responses you might get.

    But I would also add that for new bloggers it is important not to get too worried about readership and engagement measures. Worrying too much can constrain your blogging. These are aspects I need to be aware of because the aim of what I do is to help others.