2D Discussion: A Nodal Framework for Discussion Board Posts

Concurrent Session 1

Brief Abstract

Flipped classrooms have increased engagement, but at-home instruction is often isolating for students. We have developed 2D Discussion, a platform that creates a nodal network from discussion board posts. This method allows students to better visualize connections between topics and will hopefully encourage more robust interactions outside of the classroom.


Caitlin Hanlon, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Biomedical Engineering Department at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Her graduate work focused on using genetic and cell biology techniques to discover the embryological roles of previously uncharacterized genes. As a post-doctoral fellow, Dr. Hanlon develops innovative methods to deliver biomedical educational content to undergraduates, graduate students, and medical students.

Extended Abstract


Participants in our session will learn what 2D Discussion is, how it was developed, and how it improves upon the traditional discussion board format. Our presentation will consist of a short talk, including a live demonstration of the current 2D Discussion model, followed by an audience-led forum. We view this presentation as a chance to gain insight from our audience members about features that can be added, how the data can be interpreted, and if this approach will be beneficial in their classrooms. Because 2D Discussion is still in the beta-testing phase, input from audience members will be crucial for developing and then sharing the final product.


Background: Many courses in higher education are taught in a traditional lecture-based format. Lectures can deliver a large amount of information to a large number of people. However, the quantity of information often overshadows the quality of lecture, as levels of student engagement are low and retain little of what was taught (Schmidt et al, 2015). For this reason, many educators have adopted active learning strategies such as the flipped classroom approach (O'Flaherty and Phillips, 2015). The flipped classroom format of instruction is composed of an at-home preparatory phase that gives students the background information necessary to participate during the in-class active learning component. Flipping the class increases student engagement, test scores, and classroom satisfaction (Tune et al 2013).

Problem: While the flipped classroom has promoted engagement amongst students, the at-home portion (typically an e-lecture) has lagged behind. Many e-lectures lack a social component, which can lead to students feeling isolated and disengaged from their classmates. Educators have attempted to improve the student’s e-learning environment through the use of discussion boards. Unfortunately, the design of discussion boards has not changed significantly since their introduction over two decades ago. Today’s students, who are used to visualizing text and connections in social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, are particularly disengaged with the typical discussion board format offered in many learning management systems (Dixson, 2010).

Solution: We have designed a discussion board that encourages team-work, the co-creation of content, and the construction of the learner’s own knowledge. This system, which has a working title 2D Discussion, integrates faculty and student generated content to help establish a rich and powerful learning environment leading to a more robust learning community.

Methods: The Science of Medicine, an undergraduate course at Johns Hopkins University, was used to build the 2D Discussion platform.  This course was an elective in the Biomedical Engineering program and had seventeen enrolled students. The majority of students were freshman in the pre-medicine track. The Science of Medicine was taught in a flipped style: students watched four to six short e-lectures at home and participated in active learning exercises or discussions in class.  Each week of the course focused on a different biomedical topic, such as the creation of designer babies using genome editing techniques or new techniques to combat antimicrobial resistance.

At the beginning of each week, students were provided with a course map showing the e-lectures for that week’s topic. Students were told that they should view this map as a simple scaffold that they were responsible for growing into an intricate web. Students identified relevant related content and posted it under specific subfolders on a traditional discussion board. This content included journal articles, videos, and self-generated presentations. During the eight weeks of the course, there were 249 items posted to the course discussion board. Although students enjoyed finding and discussing relevant material, they wished that the discussion board enabled easier sharing and a more user-friendly design. The 2D discussion platform was created out of these student requests.

Computer code was developed using the javascript library, D3, to generate a nodal map. Each e-lecture served as a main node and the content archived from the discussion board during the semester served as subnodes. The main nodes could be clicked to open the subnodes.  For example, “Rogue Clinics and Designer Babies” was open to display the seven faculty generated subtopics and the 35 student posts. These posts ranged from articles on Unnatural Selection to podcasts on genes to make you taller. When subnodes were clicked, they displayed a summary of the content and a link to the source. All of these data points were manually entered into the coding framework. Connections between related nodes were also manually identified.  

The 2D Discussion platform will be used to display course content during the second iteration of the course in the spring of 2018. We hypothesize that the delivery of information using 2D Discussion will enable a more unified and engaged community of learners. We plan to test this hypothesis when we offer the course next semester by measuring the number of posts added to the 2D Discussion board and measuring the number of times students comment on the posts of other students versus the number of new threads made. Our assumption is that the graphical nature of the discussion board will make it easier and more compelling for students to add posts as well as go back and look at the content created by their peers.



Dixson, M. D. (2010). Creating effective student engagement in online courses: What do students find engaging. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(2), 1 – 13.

O'Flaherty, J., & Phillips, C. (2015). The use of flipped classrooms in higher education: A scoping review. The Internet and Higher Education25, 85-95.

Schmidt, H. G., Wagener, S. L., Smeets, G. A., Keemink, L. M., & van der Molen, H. T. (2015). On the use and misuse of lectures in higher education. Health Professions Education1(1), 12-18.

Tune, J. D., Sturek, M., & Basile, D. P. (2013). Flipped classroom model improves graduate student performance in cardiovascular, respiratory, and renal physiology. Advances in physiology education37(4), 316-320.