To Notebowl, or Not to Notebowl…

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I started using Notebowl in my composition classes over the summer in the hopes that it would increase student engagement in discussions. Here we are, at almost the mid-way point in the fall semester, and the jury is still out. Notebowl definitely has some great features, but there are also some significant drawbacks to the user experience.

Notebowl promises a better discussion experience for students–one that will increase engagement by looking more like the social media platforms that students are used to. I’m not so sure that Notebowl is significantly better in this regard. Here’s a look at a Notebowl discussion vs a Canvas discussion:

Visually, the two discussions are almost identical. If students have uploaded a photo, the photo shows next to their name when they post. Notebowl does put replies in a box with a shaded background, which is nice. However, Canvas discussions shows how replies to replies are related by nesting them. In Notebowl, replies are stacked right on top of each other, so it’s more difficult to see who is responding to whom. I’m not convinced that the visual appearance alone is enough to make Notebowl superior to the default discussions on Canvas.

Notebowl discussions do offer some pretty great capabilities, though, like the option to set a required word count and requirements for a student’s initial post and subsequent replies. For example, I can set a discussion to require a 250 word count initial post and two additional comments. Notebowl will show me whether students have completed the requirements or not, making grading much easier. There is even an option to autofill grades based on whether criteria have been met.  The following is a screenshot of the gradebook for Notebowl. This is also what shows up in Speed Grader, as well; student submissions aren’t separated out.

The Bulletin is a great feature, but one that I don’t use. Instructors can add the Bulletin (a Notebowl discussion) to the course menu and use it in place of announcements. When I post announcements, I generally schedule them out for the semester, linking assignments, modules, etc, in the announcement itself. Notebowl discussions do not allow instructors to link to course content, which makes them less valuable for me. I choose not to use Bulletin for this reason.

Another snag I’ve run into is that there is no easy way to access all of the Notebowl discussions. While I hide the Discussion tab from students to ensure they are working through the course in the proper order, I can click on the discussion tab to easily find the discussion I need to look at. With Notebowl, I have to navigate to the Assignments page or the module to click on the discussion. It’s not terribly inconvenient, but it is an extra step.

Even though Notebowl does have some drawbacks, one of the best features is the customer service. When I started using Notebowl over the summer, I found the team very responsive to suggestions and excited about how Notebowl can enhance student learning. I am hopeful that, as the software evolves, many of the challenges I see will be resolved. In the meantime, I will continue to use Notebowl. I find that the ease of grading and the ability to set specific guidelines for studnets outweighs the drawbacks.