Thursday, May 06, 2010

Quality Time: Level of Formality in Online Discussions

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What kind of rules, if any, should instructors set on formality levels in online classroom discussions? This seems to be a controversial topic: on one side, some believe informal, even “texting” style writing is acceptable in discussion boards (though perhaps not in essays or other projects); others believe formal academic writing should be expected throughout a college course. Ultimately, these decisions are up to the instructor and depend on individual course outcomes, but below are a few points to consider.

In defense of informality…
Some say as long as students are writing, participating in class, and exchanging ideas, casual writing is acceptable. Aside from informal tone, students may make spelling errors and typos, write in lowercase letters, and the like. We may not enjoy this kind of writing, but if we enforce correctness and formality, students may freeze up and quit communicating altogether. Some defenders of informality claim if students make mistakes, it may be because they are relaxed enough to be comfortable with the course: this is a good thing.

Even those who disagree with this perspective might consider some classroom occasions in which informality is perfectly acceptable. In the face-to-face environment, students interact by informally chatting before or after class or in study groups; online forums can be set up for this express purpose and remain ungraded. Also, an instructor teaching developmental courses may decide the importance of any student participation outweighs, at this point on students’ educational paths, the need for formal or even correct language.

In defense of formality…
As an English instructor, I am familiar with the teaching philosophy that, formal or casual tone aside, “content” of a written piece is more important than correctness (e.g., complete sentences, correct spelling and grammar). However, one might consider clear, correct usage of the language as a vital part of content. If more and more college instructors adopt the “as long as ideas are good, expression of ideas is negligible” philosophy, we could graduate more and more college students who never have been taught to write clearly and concisely for an audience.

Also from an instructional perspective, and on a practical level, requiring correct, clear writing makes sense in two ways. One, because CCCOnline instructors must require students to demonstrate writing proficiency, a simple way to do that is to require college-level writing in every assignment submitted to a class. Two, if instructors consistently require correct, clear writing--even if informal in tone on some occasions--this writing can be more easily compared to the same students’ formal projects to assess whether all assignments are being completed by the same person.

It is gratifying to know that as instructors, we can help our students to cultivate a habit of writing more clearly. First, such a habit demonstrates courtesy for others; we try to teach writing students that the burden of clarity should be on the writer, not the reader. Also, building better writing skills encourages practicing clearer and more logical thinking: surely a desirable activity in every college-level course.

Students might be persuaded by the “reputation” argument for taking care while writing; this argument is expressed eloquently here (from the “Communicating Online” page by Julie Watson, The Higher Education Academy, University of Southampton, UK): “The reader will judge you by what you send and be distracted from what you are saying if the message contains errors in grammar, spelling or punctuation. In an academic context such mistakes look particularly bad.”

Finally, we might consider expecting quality writing to be in line with expecting general quality work from students. If we expect more, we get more; and we might expect more from college students than the ability to relax and “just be themselves” in their written discussions. A college classroom, face-to-face or online, is a professional space; and we might expect the level of discourse to reflect that.

Quality Time is a series of posts concerning course quality issues, best practices, and/or CCCOnline policy.


anghave said...
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anghave said...


Fellow English instructor here. I'm completely in agreement with requiring "formal" writing in discussion posts, and I promote the idea to students that "the reader will judge you by what [and how] you [write]" as a spur towards improving their level of writing in both content and grammar in discussions.

Great info--thanks!

PS: I removed my first posted comment because I found a typo in it! :)