A Discussion about Adaptive Learning and Discussion Boards: What Role can they Serve and What Value can they Have?

Concurrent Session 3

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Discussion boards present the opportunity for engagement with course topics and higher level thinking if designed and structured well.  Adaptive learning provides for self-paced, flexible learning paths. How can the self-paced, personalized flexibility of adaptive learning be combined with online discussions between students at very different places in course content?


Dr. Matthew Vick is a professor of science education from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. He has directed/co-directed two grant projects at UW-W: a two-year Wisconsin Elementary and Secondary Education Act Title IIA Improving Teacher Quality Grant entitled "Integrating Science and Literacy Learning with English Proficient and English Language Learners" and a one-year UW System Outreach grant entitled "Collaboratively Implementing the Vision of the Next Generation Science Standards in the Mukwonago Area School District with Pre-service and In-service Teachers". He has published research articles and a book chapter in science education as well as practitioner-based articles. He has presented at the National Science Teachers Association, the Association for Science Teacher Education, the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, and the Wisconsin Society of Science Teachers. He has served as department chair for the department of Curriculum and Instruction and interim associate dean of graduate studies.
Nicole is currently the Director of Learning Technology at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater where she is responsible for providing vision, leadership, guidance and support in the delivery of innovative, high-quality, pedagogically-sound and technology-enhanced instruction. She has extensive experience in leading student success initiatives, facilitating online and blended faculty development, creating communities of practice around online and blended teaching, and evaluating the effectiveness of emerging learning technologies in higher education environments. Additionally, Nicole has taught face-to-face, blended, and online courses around research methods, community problems, and educational psychology at various universities since 2009. Her research interests lie in emerging technology, social processes, faculty development, course design, and the impact of current higher education practices on first-generation college students, with her work having been published in several books and journals, as well as presented nationally.

Extended Abstract


By the end of this session, participants will be able to:

  1. Describe various strategies used for structuring discussion boards in online courses.

  2. Describe the context of adaptive learning.

  3. Compare and contrast the purposes of pacing in adaptive learning environments and structured discussion boards.

  4. Describe and analyze the experiences of other practitioners about the use of discussion boards in a flexible, adaptive learning environment.

Discussion boards allow for community-building, social construction of knowledge, and a forum for students to communicate their understanding and knowledge about class concepts with each other.  Active discussions can engage students in analyzing and applying concepts for the course in other contexts. They also allow students to engage in evaluation and critique as they respond to a variety of viewpoints.  However, discussion boards also be reduced to students posting summaries with seemingly random quotes for course readings and posting general responses to their fellow students.

Adaptive learning platforms allow for self-paced, flexible movement of students through a course’s curriculum based upon their demonstrations of prior knowledge and understanding of course material.  Learners needing more time to understand and practice concepts can have that time; advanced learners able to demonstrate competency can advance to other material. A tension between this flexibly paced and flexibly sequenced curriculum and the use of structured discussion boards can exist.  Students may be completing lessons in different sequences at a vastly different times, thus if discussions rely on students interacting with course material, they may be at those points at very different times.

The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater piloted an adaptive learning course in a fully online and in a blended format.   Discussion boards were included in both versions of the course. Discussion board forums clearly identified what modules/nodes from the Adaptive Learning environment should be marked as “competent” before a student engaged in the discussion.  The instructor engaged directly with students in their discussion board posts. Students were given flexibility to select a limited set of the discussion forums upon which to respond to other students in a meaningful way, connected to the course content.

Instructor and student perspectives about deadlines, question structuring, instructor participation, and response requirements will be shared.


Engagement Strategies

Poll Everywhere will be used to gauge the audience’s experience with discussion boards and with adaptive learning environments.  Open ended questions will allow for sharing of other perspectives and experiences.

Session Plan (45 minutes)

  1. Summary of some Best Practices in the use of discussion boards (10 minutes)

  2. Overview of adaptive learning (10 minutes)

  3. Discussion of potential points of contradiction between adaptive learning frameworks and discussion boards (5 minutes)

  4. Description of experience at UW-Whitewater with an adaptive learning course using discussion boards (10 minutes)

  5. Question and Answer (10 minutes)