Commentary, Opinion

Online discussion forums are the future of conferences

In light of McGill’s announcement that instruction will continue primarily online during the Winter 2021 semester, students in the Faculty of Arts must prepare for the possibility that most of their conferences will remain remote. This new reality will disappoint those who miss direct face-to-face interaction with their peers. However, students should not dismiss the strengths of discussion forums, which make them a viable alternative to the flawed in-person conference system. Discussion posts are more inclusive and easier to grade, and they create more well-thought-out discourse than in-person meetings. Arts students would benefit from their continued use alongside traditional conferences. 

Even in a casual setting like a weekly conference, public speaking can be daunting for many students. Those who have social anxiety may feel too intimidated to openly voice their thoughts, especially when meetings delve into controversial topics that sometimes provoke strong responses from fellow students. Discussions on myCourses reduce fears of public speaking, making the virtual conference a more inclusive place to share one’s ideas. 

MyCourses discussions also give students more time to think about their answers than they would have in a standard conference. Although some professors and teaching assistants release questions in advance, meetings can become highly spontaneous when discussion leaders pose new questions and when classmates react to each other’s perspectives. This format benefits students who can think quickly and improvise answers, but a textual forum enables more thorough consideration of different arguments. Thus, discussion posts produce higher-quality conversations than face-to-face conferences can. 

Online discussion boards also solve one of the most significant problems with in-person conferences: They are challenging to grade fairly. When conferences are evaluated by participation, some students try to speak as much as they can to obtain the highest possible mark. This comes at the expense of those who are not called upon, since they are afforded less speaking time and therefore receive lower participation grades. Some conferences are assessed by attendance alone, with no incentive for students to speak. In this format, students are not motivated to prepare in advance, leading to periods of awkward silence broken only by a small number of individuals who have done the necessary work beforehand and feel obliged to contribute. On the other hand, discussion forums require a minimum level of participation from each group member, such as making one original post and commenting on a classmate’s post. They also allow those who are more interested in the conversation to continue it without preventing their classmates from contributing and earning a good grade. While in-person conferences can cause students to speak either too much or too little, an online platform provides a more equitable grading scheme that suits more students’ learning styles.

Detractors would argue that discussion boards are a poor replacement for conferences because they inhibit the natural flow of intellectual debate. Many feel that interpersonal communication is integral to the university experience and that discussion posts amount to little more than additional essays. Although instructors should work to carry the relaxed atmosphere of a conference into a virtual format, creating a truly equivalent experience would be impossible. Those who miss the organic connections fostered by conferences should feel welcome to return to them once the public health situation permits doing so, and video calls can continue to be used as a substitute in the meantime. However, professors should adapt syllabi going forward to allow discussion posts as an alternative for those who find conferences more challenging. 

Although online discussion boards may not be the best choice for everyone, they can mitigate many problems that currently exist with conferences. They help students who find public speaking challenging, foster more intelligent discourse, and level the playing field by providing equal opportunities to contribute. McGill should allow students who prefer myCourses threads to continue using them, even after in-person conferences resume.

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