Discussion Boards and Workforce Preparedness: Do Online Discussion Boards Achieve Holistic and Meaningful Goals?

Concurrent Session 7

Brief Abstract

Employers demand communication skills, problem-solving skills, and fluency in virtual teams.  The discussion board in the virtual classroom aids students in developing and refining these skills. However, a large, multi-part research study suggests that discussion boards may not be achieving this goal.  This interactive session will share our lessons learned.

Extended Abstract

In today’s multi-national enterprise where employees will communicate synchronously and asynchronously across time zones with culturally-diverse colleagues, the role of effective communication and collaboration cannot be underestimated. The role of educational institutions in preparing workers to fill the employer needs is critical, and must keep up with the changing needs of both companies and learners.  Therefore, understanding how to increase skills competency in these areas within the learning process, especially online, has become a focal point for many research studies.

Using the “prepare, practice, and perform” pedagogy in online education, discussion boards offer a unique and effective way for students to practice and perform communicating in an environment where their colleagues and mentors can guide improvement. Because employers are stressing the importance of communication skills in new graduate hires, a focus on how discussion boards can best help student in this area is paramount.  One goal of this original research was to assess student satisfaction with current discussion board practices through the use of an online, confidential survey. The researchers wanted to understand how students view discussion boards, to what degree they contribute to their learning, and to what extent they synthesize a meaningful classroom discussion.  The connection between soft skills, workforce development, and online learning seem to be synergistic in that the one area of online learning that most differs from classroom learning is the nature of the discussion.  With the results in hand based (over 500 student responses), we are now at a pivotal place in the conversation.  What do we do with these results and how do we adjust our online learning environment to embrace the holistic intent of online discussion boards to where students brainstorm, deliberate, work as teams, ask questions, and engage in rich and meaningful student-led and faculty-led conversation as though they were in a classroom setting?  The reason these skills are so important is the discussion forum is the most frequent area of digital collaboration for online students and their main opportunity to refine their communication and collaboration skills; skills that industry demands and the workforce of the future most possess. 

The learning management system (LMS) was born out of a messaging board system found within the Bulletin Board System (BBS) structure pre-internet.  A BBS was a place where people could login, send asynchronous messages, and others could later login and reply.  This feature was, at the time, always referred to as a message board.  Although the features of the original message board (circa early 1990) are relatively unchanged, one thing has changed; the label.  We now refer to this functionality in today’s LMS as a discussion board.  This change was likely due to the mapping of classroom synthesized functions.  When faculty were asked what features they needed in an online learning system, “the ability to have a class discussion” was likely on the list.  The recent research illustrated this disconnect; what was once called a message board was renamed a discussion board yet the interactivity or feature-set of this activity was mostly unchanged.  This alternation is what may have led to the current disconnect in the research that suggests that discussions aren’t actually had within discussion boards in a way that synthesizes a classroom discussion.  But, does the label really matter? 

Universities traditionally assess activities as they relate to learning outcomes using a rubric or other measure.  But, when was the last time the tool itself was evaluated for fit or achieving soft-skills outcomes within our students?  A frequent comment found in the original research that students used to describe discussion boards was “busywork”.  There is currently a push towards other, external platforms that use a more social-media like interface to create a more real-time environment.  But, does this enhancement move us closer to our goal of facilitating rich communication and collaboration or further from our goal by turning rich thought into tweet-sized text blocks? The jury is out, but much conversation needs to be had around the role of the online discussions and how to best prepare students to communicate and collaborate as successful entrants into today’s workforce. 

Finally, this conversation seeks to achieve several objectives.  The first is to share original research findings.  The second is to learn how others utilize the discussion board tool within the LMS.  The third is to learn what type of student feedback is received based on the nature of these utilizations.  To achieve this holistic goal, there needs to be a better understanding of the purpose of the discussion board as it relates to soft-skills training and workforce development from the viewpoint of the audience.  This will be achieved by engaging the audience using the audience participation tool Poll Everywhere.  This tool will allow voting responses from everyone in the physical or virtual audience who has an internet connected laptop or tablet or a cellular device that is text message capable.  To further enhance engagement, audience responses will be broadcast live on the screen during the presentation so the results of the live audience polls (anonymized in aggregate form) can best guide the conversation and inform future research.  After presenting the preliminary findings and with the knowledge gained from the audience further research can be done, experiments created using different discussion board concepts, and greater feedback from industry obtained on how successful online classes are in preparing students to effectively communicate and collaborate both in-person and beyond as well as the role of the discussion board.