Our online courses often include the Student Cafe, which is an ungraded discussion area intended to encourage peer-to-peer interactions, foster or enhance student engagement, and build a learning community. Sounds great, but I wonder sometimes how many students post to the Student Cafe? Do they find it useful? Open Learning students often start a course at different times and work through the course at varying speeds, so their forum posts and replies can be sporadic or uncertain.
Is there a benefit for students to use it? Well, perhaps yes. An ungraded online space is recommended as one method to help minority or English language learners succeed in online courses:
“We also believe online courses can work to support these students — when instructors provide safe spaces for ungraded dialogue. […] A ‘safe house’ is a platform in which students can merge colloquial and academic discourse as they develop their writing style. In an online course, this safe house could take the form of an unevaluated discussion forum in which students are free to engage with the course material, with the instructor, and with each other. These spaces can be used for ungraded, informal communication, enabling more inclusive discussion for all students.” (MacKinnon & MacFarlane, 2017, Online Learning Punishes Minority Students, but Video Chats Can Help)
The article has other good recommendations to help diverse groups of students succeed in an online learning environment, for example: Instructor-student video conferencing; grading the ideas instead of adherence to academic writing conventions; and providing comments or feedback to engage with students.