From Disenchanted with Discussion to Inspired about Inquiry: My Experience Adopting Packback

In this article, Professor Sarah Garman explores her experience teaching online for over a decade and the disenchantment she experienced with traditional online discussion after years of hard effort on her part never quite yielding the results she wanted. With that skeptical attitude, she tried Packback and found her excitement towards discussion reinvigorated through Packback’s inquiry-based approach.

Written by Professor Sarah Garman

I have been teaching my course completely online, in some form, since the late 1990s. About six years ago, I rebuilt the whole course, and at that time, I made a concerted effort to focus on the discussion boards. I had read a lot of research on student voice and choice, and I wanted to make sure I provided this on the discussion boards, which is the main interactive tool in the course. 

I decided that I would offer five to six choices on the discussion board each week. Since I cover a variety of disciplines in the humanities, this was easy. I would offer one question on philosophy, one on music, one on dance, one on religion, etc., whatever was appropriate to the chapter. The students would choose one question a week to respond to and then reply to two classmates.

I also made sure that I used a variety of interactive techniques on the boards. I would vary typical discussion and research questions from the text with boards that would ask students to respond to works of art by uploading original poems or posters. They sometimes responded to videos on dance, music, philosophy, and current events with their own video responses, marketing flyers, or brochures.  Anything to keep students interested and to make sure I was addressing all types of learners. I was pleased with my work on the discussion boards. My course went on to win several national awards; the comments from the judges usually mentioned the discussion boards as one of the most innovative parts of the course. 

But since that time, I have become disenchanted with my discussion boards and the discussion board tool as a whole. No matter how explicitly I wrote the directions for the boards, or how thoroughly I modeled what I wanted, what I got from students was just… underwhelming and hastily done. They just did not seem interested enough to put in the effort. Grading the discussion boards became a chore. Policing the replies was also something I dreaded. I cannot tell you how many times I have tried to explain to students that their replies should be like a conversation and the words, “Good job,” just do not suffice as a good reply to their classmates.

 I was torn. I wanted to give up on the discussion boards altogether. But all the work I put into developing the questions… I could not imagine letting all that go.  I was hesitant to try something new and unproven and have it end up anywhere short of excellent. 

Yet, I knew what I wanted. I needed smart technology that teaches students while they use it and acts as “wrap-around” support for both students and instructors. Something that would give me a framework to spark curiosity and encourage meaningful inquiry, even in an online setting.

It was with that skeptical attitude that I first started using Packback. Once my students got used to using Packback, I saw a difference quickly, and I’m glad to say my mind was quickly changed. Here are three key evidence-based practices that I’ve been able to implement in my online courses:

Autonomy. A body of research — not to mention my own experience — suggests that students must have control over their work for their motivation to be genuine and continuous. That includes things like unregulated peer-to-peer interaction, which of course is much harder online than in face-to-face classes. Packback’s platform makes that kind of autonomy and self-motivation possible, and to be honest, I could never have imagined the depth of questions students come up with. They focus on the things that are important to THEM, that interest THEM from the chapter. As they frame their questions, they also seem to have an easier time connecting the content to the real world in ways that did not happen when they were just responding to my questions. They are more excited to respond to each other’s questions in a meaningful way as well. In the past semester, most students felt driven to try to post the most interesting questions, and a true community formed, which, of course, should be the goal of any effective classroom.

Support. Let’s face it: teaching takes a lot of time, effort, and energy, even more so during Covid, with most of having so much more to do online than normal. I think that one of the best roles technology can play is to take care of those things that too often fall by the wayside. Packback’s Curiosity Score, for instance, keeps students on the right track and gives them individualized guidance and attention. The AI technology is almost like wraparound support for the discussion board: even though I can’t be everywhere at once, I know my students are getting formative feedback every step of the way.

Consultation. One of the most frequent challenges I hear about implementing inquiry-based learning–or any new edTech tool–is that it’s hard to do alone. I know faculty and students have been exposed to so much new technology during COVID. We are all on overload. And just as students often struggle with new material when they don’t have the right guidance from their teachers, instructors need support to implement new models effectively. Right from the beginning, Packback’s trained faculty consultants helped me ensure that my goals were clearly defined. I had an implementation plan designed for my specific course goals, and then we worked together to track data throughout the term to ensure goals are being met.

After piloting for a semester, I have now added Packback in my master course for everyone to use, and I’ve even created my own FAQs to help students (and my colleagues) navigate the tool. I have a strong hunch that when we return to in-person instruction, I’ll continue to use Packback in my face-to-face classes as well. I had to let go of my idea of what the discussion board should be to truly give students autonomy and choice, and I do not regret it.

Professor Sarah Garman loves teaching, her students, and strives to develop new strategies and wrap-around services to serve Miami Dade College’s multi-ethnic, multi-cultural population. Professor Garman was recognized for her Virtual College Introduction to Humanities course, which received the 2012 United States Distance Learning Association Gold Award and the 2013 Blackboard Catalyst Exemplary Course Award for excellence in online teaching and course development. In 2014, the same course also received the Instructional Technology Council’s Award for Outstanding Fully Online Course and was approved by Quality Matters. In 2015, Professor Garman was awarded the Instructional Technology Council’s Award for Outstanding eLearning Faculty. In 2017, Professor Garman received the MDC John and Elizabeth Rode Endowed Teaching Chair.

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