Authentic Conversations Turn “Discussions” Into Communities

Concurrent Session 3

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Online “discussions” often spur little conversation or community building. Proper incentives can easily drive actual conversations that are unencumbered by traditional “discussion” assignments. This presentation will focus on data from Yellowdig showing that conversations are essential for community health and, in turn, improve engagement, retention, satisfaction, and learning outcomes.


Brian Verdine, Ph.D., is Yellowdig's Head of Client Success. He received his doctorate in Psychology from Vanderbilt University's Peabody College and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the School of Education at the University of Delaware, where he was appointed and continues to be an Affiliated Assistant Professor. His research background involves learning from technology and informal-learning activities. In addition to overseeing student support, in his position at Yellowdig he mines data from instructors and Yellowdig's platform to understand how Yellowdig can be applied best and to make product recommendations that improve student and instructor outcomes.
Tyler Rohrbaugh is the VP of Strategic Partnerships for Yellowdig, a Philadelphia-based EdTech company that works with some of the top institutions in the world to improve student engagement and retention. Having joined the company in Summer 2017, he prides himself on building strong relationships with the administrators, professors, and course designers he works with, and in identifying new ways that they can use Yellowdig technologies to see improvements across the KPIs that they care about most. Tyler received his MBA with specialization in Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management from Drexel University's Lebow College of Business, where he also completed his undergraduate studies and continues to guest lecture in undergraduate and graduate Marketing courses.

Extended Abstract

Many degree programs and courses include online discussion spaces designed to engage students, promote critical thinking, increase topic relevance, help students network, etc. In many of these spaces, instructors and course designers set up weekly assignments. They expend considerable effort creating the assignments, enforcing participation, and grading, only to be met with disappointing results. Adding insult to injury, many students also do not enjoy or find value in the experience. In reality, these assignments rarely spur real conversations, fail to build a strong community atmosphere that offers the benefits of student interactions and networking, and create more student annoyance than engagement. In short, they incur a high cost for instructors and students while failing to achieve most of their stated objectives.

The assignments and weekly topics that are the hallmark of traditional discussions are often considered the solution to getting students talking about their courses. In reality, these approaches are a major cause of poor conversations, even when the weekly prompts are thoughtfully created by expert instructors and course designers. Assignments lead to a constricted conceptualization of the purpose of online spaces where students can interact and to “discussions” that feel scripted and artificial. Further, students write responses to instructors, who are often grading their discussion posts, rather than focusing on having actual conversations with one another. Most importantly, weekly assignments lead to a weekly cadence where even the go-getter students learn to procrastinate; they cannot finish their assignments until others post, so they wait until the deadline. Finally, as topics expire at the end of each week, even the rare good conversations are stopped dead in their tracks. Ultimately, this traditional discussion framework actually raises a series of hurdles to interesting, meaningful, back-and-forth conversations. Those hurdles effectively preclude the development of healthy online learning communities. It is the group experience within a healthy community that ultimately produces most of the desired benefits of online discussions, and the promise of those benefits is what impels us to include “discussions” in our courses to begin with.

This session is focused on data from Yellowdig that challenge the status quo for online discussions, especially the weekly assignment paradigm. Yellowdig’s design enables assignment-free conversations where desired community-building behaviors are amplified by a point system that encourages positive student-to-student interactions and engaged conversations. The session is headed by Brian Verdine, Ph.D., Yellowdig’s Head of Customer Success and an affiliated Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Delaware. It will be co-presented by Tyler Rohrbaugh, Yellowdig’s Head of Client Partnerships. They will blend knowledge gained from college teaching experiences, interactions with professors at Yellowdig’s 50+ partner institutions, and data from Yellowdig’s 200,000+ active users to explore how to create real conversations and build online communities.

The presentation will start by focusing on understanding the conditions that are actually necessary for a conversation and why conversations are so important for community health. The presentation will then shift into understanding how weekly assignments influence conversations. Dr. Verdine will go into detail about the pedagogical philosophy and psychology behind many Yellowdig features, which will help attendees understand both why Yellowdig works and appreciate how they can improve their own approach to discussions whether they use Yellowdig or not. Given Dr. Verdine’s research background, the session will focus heavily on what Yellowdig’s data says about the opportunities and pitfalls in producing active online conversations. Though the data will be from the Yellowdig platform, the expectation is that anyone with a discussion component for their course will find applications for much of the information presented, regardless of the technology available to them.