The Future of Discussion: The Non-Panopticon

Concurrent Session 6

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

In online learning, discussion boards are often nothing more than an echo chamber. They are tedious for students to write, and they are tedious for instructors to grade.

What are discussions missing? Or should we ask, what should be removed?

Hear two veteran instructional designers’ proposal for accelerating online discussions.



Marisa Ruiz has worked in higher education since 2004. As an art history instructor for Maricopa Community Colleges, she taught face-to-face and hybrid courses, and currently teaches online art appreciation courses. She began working in the instructional design field in 2007 and takes a special interest in idea generation supportive of the best student experience though her collaborative work with faculty. Obtaining a Master's in Art History from American University in Washington DC, she interned at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, later working in the publications department. She completed a Master's in Education & Curriculum and Instruction with a focus on the adult learner.
Kena’s been an Instructional Designer at EdPlus ASU Online since August 2015, designing college courses and workshops since 2009, and working in higher ed since 2004. She believes learning should be fun and directly applicable to learners' lives! As an English major and design enthusiast, she’s passionate about collaborating with brilliant people and turning their expertise into clear, authentic, well-written, good-looking curriculum. The focus of her master's action research project was engagement strategies for non-tradional learners. She helps facilitate Master Class for Teaching Online and provides instructional design consultation for a dozen online programs and supports hundreds of faculty. She also enjoys interior design projects and teaches vinyasa yoga at a couple of places, including a weekly class for employees at EdPlus!

Extended Abstract

From the lens of veteran instructional designers, we have seen the evolution of discussion tools from infinitely nested ‘90s-style threads to the use of social learning platforms such as Yellowdig and Notebowl. However, even with the advent of these new tools, the value of asynchronous discussion has continually devolved. Often, a discussion board feels like an echo chamber: in an effort to answer the prompt correctly, student responses are repetitive, predictable, and uninspired. They are tedious to write, and they are tedious to grade.

It’s time to rethink the design of discussion in the online Higher Ed environment. How should discussion be presented, and with what outcomes should it be aligned? How should faculty be involved in online discussion?

The goal of discussion should be to build community among learners. Discussion forums should be safe places for idea-generation among peers. They should not be a punitive environment in which mistakes get corrected and tangents get re-railed.

Instructors should not govern discussions with a panoptic presence. We propose a move away from the panopticon, where instructors are positioned as watchers, directing students to specific ends.

Recent research on student construction of meaning via online discussion has presented specific, task-oriented strategies (Darabi, A., Arrastia, M., Nelson, D., Cornille, T. & Liang, X., 2010). In our view, discussion should be designed as an autonomous activity, where students have the agency to make mistakes, and construct meaning through peer-to-peer interactions. Creating a safe space, free of the panoptic lens will lead to truly authentic discussion, we propose.   

Instructors should let go of the old paradigm in which discussions required their constant intervention and responses were graded like papers.    

Instead, we should use social learning technology for its intended purpose: as a platform for students to connect with one another on their own terms. In the context of recent research, discussion should increase student social engagement in order to accelerate the development of cognitive presence.   

Understanding that there is much to explore in the topic of discussion, we ask for your ideas about our approach to discussion design: What type of discussions can shape the best experience for students at your institution? What type of discussions quash engagement? What are tried-and-true pedagogical methods for course developers and instructors to apply, and what are your ideas for new methods?

Darabi, A., Arrastia, M., Nelson, D., Cornille, T. & Liang, X. (2010). Learners’ Cognitive Presence in Online Discussion. In J. Herrington & C. Montgomerie (Eds.), Proceedings of EdMedia: World Conference on Educational Media and Technology 2010 (pp. 517-528). Waynesville, NC: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE).