Online Discussion Boards

A discussion board is a great way to maintain open lines of communication with your students. By providing a common space for students to ask questions, you’ll be able to give in-depth answers to each question rather than face the prospect of several e-mails all asking the same question. Additionally, most student’s aren’t quite sure what to ask – often, students receive important clarification from ongoing discussion which they would never seek out on their own.

How Online Discussions Help Your Pedagogy

Reference: Sometimes, it’s good to be able to refer back to a previous discussion – this can not only help your students better reflect on what they’ve learned, but it can also help you use specific examples as you write teaching statements for future employment.

Social Cohesion: I don’t have any studies to cite, but I’ve observed that students who interact outside the classroom seem to relate to each other better in the classroom.

Group Projects: It can be hard for students to coordinate schedules.  Often, they’ll put off meeting until right before a deadline.  With discussion forums, they can begin working on their projects before actually meeting.

Every Student Can Talk: Not every student is comfortable speaking up in a classroom setting.  Plus, your class time is short – there are always too many good points and not enough time.  With online discussions, every student can contribute.

Some Considerations

The technology in the STV 250 classroom offers unique opportunities for students to write records of their discussions during class time. Plus, when discussions are shared online, students can continue their work outside the classroom.  This further allows students to maintain an ongoing interaction, which both leads to more opportunities for discourse and potentially a more cohesive group of students.

However, online discussions never “just happen.”  Despite the presence of technology and student familiarity with social media, the online discussion forum is an unfamiliar genre for your students in two ways.  First, they aren’t accustomed to scholarly discourse – the kind of discussions where you cite examples and pose critical thinking questions.  Second, students don’t really use discussion forums – instead, they’re accustomed to either isolated e-mails, immediate chat, or snippets of Facebook comments.

To help introduce your students to this new genre, it’s important to value the discussion forums through your assessment and to guide students in meeting your expectations.  I recommend starting slow.  You want to introduce your students to the discussion forums and help them become comfortable before you begin grading them on their discussion posts.  A simple forum for students to introduce themselves is a good start.

Next, I strongly recommend grading your forums.  Base your grading on the quality of participation rather than the quantity.  I recommend a rubric with three categories: references to the course readings, responding to other classmates in the forum, and providing new questions or insights.

Many teachers treat their forums as assignments rather than as a fluid conversation.  I do not recommend saying “post a comment, and I’ll grade that comment.”  Rather, I tell my students this:

You’re required to fulfill three tasks: refer to the readings, respond to your classmates, and raise a new question.  You can do this in one comment, two, three, or more – in general, the more comments you make, the easier it is to meet the three requirements.

This way, students are rewarded for their habits of discourse rather than on the ability to post a single piece of isolated writing.  (And you’re grading isolated writing elsewhere in your course…I mean, you are, aren’t you?)

Finally, you’ll want to assign your students specific roles in the forums.  A good way to do this is to assign students to start the discussion each way.  Something like “you three will post your introductions by Friday, and then the rest of the class will have until class-time Monday to post responses.”

Recommended Technologies

ReggieNet – This is the “gold standard” in classroom interaction because it’s versatile and secure.  You can organize your discussions by topic, and then grade students individually by topic.  Note, however, that there are two discussion tools, the Discussions and the Discussion Forums.  Discussions are currently the default, but they don’t work as well for grading – Discussion Forums can be activated in the Site Editor, and they’ll work with your Gradebook directly.  Additionally, because ReggieNet is an academic locality, students tend to write longer and more thoughtful posts here.

Facebook – Facebook, unlike ReggieNet, can have a discussion forum which almost takes place in real time.  Note that I’m not talk about chat functions – those are also available on ReggieNet.  But with Facebook, students are notified immediately when there’s a response to a post, and this encourages more back-and-forth.  The downside, though, is that you will need to make sure your students understand their security settings.  Additionally, because Facebook is a social medium, students tend to post shorter comments and they are more likely to neglect decorum.

GoogleDocs – Did you know that multiple people can edit a single document in real time?  This offers the potential for students to post comments, and then see each others responses as their being typed (sometimes even letter-by-letter, depending on connection speed.)  The downside, though, is that students could accidentally (or purposefully…) edit each others posts, and there are no time stamps, so it’s harder to tell who posted when.  But if your students have discussions on GoogleDocs, then they’ll be better prepared to use GoogleDocs for Online Collaboration.