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Learning in the Webiverse: How Do You Grade a Conversation?

Academics have long talked of the "academic conversation." Now, Web 2.0 has called our bluff. We live in the midst of a non-stop world conversation. But, are conversational skills (in writing) important and, if so, how do we teach them?

An Academic Online Conversation

In a real-life conversation last week, a friend told me about a colleague who based all grades this past semester on his student's conversation in Blackboard. The course itself was traditional, but the student's evidence of learning was entirely how well they conversed about the course's topics in the forums in the course management system. How, you might ask, do you evaluate written turns in an ongoing conversation?

The students' first impulse was to just write essays. However, these were not conversational turns, but performances, so they were graded very low. When the students instead started picking up on elements in the previous comment and including references to these elements in their own comments, their grades went up. If the students extended their discourse skills to synthesize several comments in their own comments, they got even higher grades.

Principles for Evaluating Online Conversations

We've already seen one criterion for grading a written conversation: creating coherence. A cohesion element is a linguistic link between one language element and another, such as repetition or re-stating or referring to. By using cohesion elements in written discourse, the interlocutors (conversational partners) produce a coherent conversation.

Awareness of audience is another criterion to use in judging how skilled your students are in sustaining an academic conversation online. If they are responding to other class members online but seem to actually be writing to you, their teacher, then they are not showing awareness of their audience. But, no matter how coherent or audience-aware the students are, if they forget the purpose (goal) of their conversation, and get side-tracked into social chit-chat, then the conversation is no longer academic (social chit chat can work toward the purpose, of course, so this is not a you-can't-have-fun rule).

And, the diction (the words) in academic conversations is necessarily different than in social conversations. A discussion of an idea is not the same as the discussion of a party.

Web 2.0 Just Does Conversation

Just as we have found that the Web does visualization really well, does reference really well, aggregation really well, and of course computation really well, we find it simulates real-life conversation really well, too. Blogs have become a conversational form, as have e-mail, and chat. All three are natural linguistic genres in that people of all ages choose to use these genres in their leisure time, they serve a social purpose, and they have developed linguistic rules of their own.

How do we know they have rules? Because we know what looks right in each of these forms, and we know what looks weird in each of these forms. We subconsciously know the discourse rules of our new human conversational forms.

That Old Tipping Point

Conversation has always been at the heart of all learning. Print and books, over the past 500 years, made "conversation" extendable in time and space and built the current world. Now, digital capabilities have taken the quotation marks away from the word conversation. In this Web 2.0 era, past the print-digital tipping point, we don't have to pretend to have an academic conversation any more ("I'll write a book, you write a review, we'll talk at a conference, you pass it on to your students, and then you write a book . . ."), we can actually have a real conversation with our students. What Richness!

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (, serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: E-mail: [email protected]

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