Make the Most of Online Discussion Boards

online discussionThe threaded discussion forum has been around for a long time, but our use of the format in online education hasn’t really changed much over the years. While there are more interactive options for connecting in a course, the forums persist.

A component of most higher education learning management systems (e.g., Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle), the typical forum starts with a prompt from the instructor. Students then post their individual replies, and (hopefully) respond to their classmates’ replies as each student finds the time to participate, often during a one-week time frame. These written conversations have a reputation for being text-heavy and tedious.

My description already sounds pretty static and uninteresting, but the truth is that many faculty members are making the most of the opportunity to not only assess understanding, but also build learning communities in their online classes through the use of discussion boards.

Multiple Perspectives and Participants

Recent conversations with friends teaching at other institutions revealed a wide range of perceptions about what instructors, students, and administrators expect to happen in these online conversations. Coincidentally, a discussion board in one of my classes this past week provided similar input from students. They expressed that different approaches to the discussion assignment can influence their level of interest in the topic, motivation to participate, and perceived value of their contributions.

There are logistical challenges to facilitating online, asynchronous conversations. A large class size, for example, can lead to a lot of reading for all involved. My students admitted that they don’t read really long discussion posts, and who can blame them when they also have textbook assignments and other reading to complete. Vague discussion prompts and expectations for student responses can also add confusion to the process and detract from the goal of interactive participation.

The asynchronous format also requires careful time management. When everyone waits until the last day of the week to post to a forum, the result is more like everyone talking at once instead of a back-and-forth exchange. Instructors often provide instructions to post an original response by Wednesday, for example, and follow-up with replies to classmates by Sunday. Rubrics are also used to establish expectations for student participation and guide instructor evaluation. Discussion forums do offer easily reported evidence of course participation at a distance. All of this creates the opportunity to summarize log ins, posts, replies etc. with numbers.

Ideas for Instructors

Some schools issue a thorough set of expectations for how instructors should conduct online discussions. These usually include requirements for responding within a certain time frame, as well as guidelines for posting discussion summaries, and even replying to each student’s post. Managing these requirements and conducting meaningful conversation can mean you need to strike a balance in the resources you have available. Think about how the following techniques might assist the process:

  • Set up a few ground rules. Have you ever facilitated a forum with inappropriate posts, offensive language, or extremely off-topic tangents? In my experience this is rare, but it does happen. Anticipate problems and controversy by sharing resources related to professional communication and netiquette early in the class, and include a description of what might cause a post to be flagged or removed. reminds us that the goal is to create a “safe environment that adds to learning.”
  • Organize the work. The University of Waterloo’s (Canada) Centre for Teaching Excellence offers guidance for discussion design. Consider dividing the forum into small groups, for example, or let students decide on a topic. Try different formats throughout the course and with each one share your vision for what should take place, whether it’s a debate, incorporation of research and references, collection of resources, exchange of opinions, etc.
  • Encourage use of multimedia. Allowing students to add images, or even post an audio or video reply, can break up the monotony of text-based responses for everyone. Not all learning management systems or threaded discussion tools have these capabilities, and they may not be appropriate for every discussion. Explore the options available and consider experimenting with one forum in your next class.
  • Review the need for a threaded discussion. I’m guilty of including a weekly discussion in my classes, but not always because one is required. An older, but still relevant, article from the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration provides a list of questions you can ask of yourself and your course, to determine the value of adding a discussion forum in any given lesson or module. Examples of these questions include: Is the topic related to the learning objectives? What insight will the discussion provide about a student’s understanding? Is the discussion a duplication of effort (i.e., addressed in other assignments as well)?

Strategies for Students

Just as faculty members receive guidelines from their departments and programs, you receive guidelines from your instructors. Not all online courses are created equal, and each discussion forum within a class can vary, too. Be ready to participate in multiple ways as the topics and related activities change each week, module, unit, or lesson.

Getting started with your first (or next) online course means finding out more about what is expected and getting into the flow of content, and, of course, due dates. If your class is operating in an accelerated time frame (less than a traditional 15-week semester), staying on track with discussion forum assignments can be challenging. Look for requirements related to when and how often you are expected to post, as well as evaluation rubrics or other details that explain how discussion boards are graded.

  • Prepare to reply. One of the advantages of online discussion forums (it’s not all bad news) is that you can take some time to process the prompt, synthesize related resources, and post a carefully considered response or reply. Educator Nancy Rubin shares a list of characteristics of quality discussion board posts, which includes advice to create responses that are not only substantial and logical, but also concise and grammatically correct.
  • Make a valuable contribution. The University of Waterloo’s tips for students include developing a strategy for each response that ensures you are adding something unique to the discussion. If you post early in the week, for example, “strive to encourage discussion … including open-ended questions in your message.” If a topic is particularly controversial for you, however, you may want to “wait before responding,” so you can reply in a professional and respectful way that moves the conversation forward.
  • Develop knowledge and skills. The threaded discussion forum is another way we can assess your understanding of concepts and how you integrate that understanding with your past experiences and course work. These forums also offer an opportunity for you to practice your written communication skills in a professional context. Using editing options to format your responses, and perhaps even recording your reply as an audio or video element, involves technology skills that will transfer to your next course and beyond.
  • Ask for clarification. Not sure what is expected of you in a discussion forum? First, review your syllabus and any introductory information in the course site for instructions. If a particular discussion prompt is confusing, don’t hesitate to contact your instructor or teaching assistant as appropriate in that class – and as early as possible. Other students may be having the same problem.

Online discussion forums present challenges for both students and instructors, but the format is not without possibilities. Is each discussion response a mini research paper or an exchange of ideas among peers? It could be either; it could be both; it could be something else entirely. The technology involved provides a blank slate of sorts. With planning, active participation, and a little creativity, these conversations can lead to better understanding of course content and a well-connected online classroom.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog