Reimagining the Discussion Board: Beyond "Post and Reply" and "I Agree"

Concurrent Session 3
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

Discussion boards, used to facilitate engagement in online courses, are often ineffective. How can we structure these to facilitate true engagement? We will present effective strategies and resources in bringing real discourse into asynchronous discussion, as well as engage the audience at large as to what worked for their institutions.


I have been in the Instructional Technology field for 10 years, focusing online course design and faculty collaboration. I am currently an Instructional Technologist and Designer at the Queens College Center for Teaching and Learning, I received my MA from TC, Columbia University in their Instructional Technology, Media and Design program after focusing on the various macro and micro factors that are essential to successful online course design, as well as a mechanism for collaborative faculty development. This work is essential to my work with collaborators. It was remarkably timely in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which this framework was utilized in part as we moved hundreds of faculty online. I am a firm believer that online learning and education must be designed with the modality in mind- one cannot just copy and paste in-person materials into an online frame. We must take into account the limitations and affordances of a modality, and how that works in concert with the human element- prior knowledge, cognitive load and the like. I also believe that for design to be successful-one must be flexible with the mechanisms. For today’s learning to be successful, we must analyze and utilize the most effective learning framework, modality, and methodology. Each circumstance should take into account the goals, prior knowledge, motivation, affordances and limitations of the modality, and learning framework. We must adapt and change as we collaborate.

Extended Abstract

Discussion boards can be in theory an effective mechanism of engagement, especially for online courses. Unfortunately in practice, most discussion boards serve more as content repositories which are more or less indifferentiable from short answer essays. Many faculty attempt to alleviate this by requiring engagement from students, in some variation of a  "post once, reply twice"” model but these replies are often shallow, unengaging, and consist of some variation of “I agree” or “Good point.” These types of responses present a facsimile of engagement without the true presence of it.

It is interesting to note that the very same students who post pale facilimiles of engagement in online course platforms, will engage in vociferous debates on social media platforms with friends or total strangers. How can we capture that engaged discussion mentality, while ensuring the discourse is respectful, productive and well-sourced?

Capturing that high-level of engagement for learning is no simple task. As has been shown time and again, without true active learning and engagement in online courses, student performance, faculty engagement, and student learning and retention suffer. This is a clearly endemic problem reported by faculty, students, and instructional support staff from institutions across the world. After presenting the broad problem, the presenters will engage the audience at large (through a collaborative medium such as a Padlet or a Google doc), with the way this issue has presented itself on their campus, potential solutions, and how those solutions have been received. 

Building on the communal response, the presenter will detail strategies that have been tried with their institution, both from experienced online faculty and faculty who have been shifted suddenly into emergency remote teaching since the spring of 2020. For the purpose of summary, this is split into two broad categories, but of course there is tremendous overlap. 

Productive Discourse

A major component of the problem is discourse in these forums are ineffective and unengaged. There is not the passionate level of multi-tiered back and forth that one tends to have in more face to face modalities. How then do we structure discussions in courses so they do have that level of engagement and discourse? We will poll the audience to ask how they engage their courses in asynchronous discussions and discuss strategies that have worked for our campus.

One inherent problem that students have discovered is they don’t know what a quality discussion board looks like. They have the passionate but often unsourced discussions on social media, and the dispassionate “busy work” basic summaries that they are used to providing in class. A solution we have found effective is to dedicate class time/office hours as “discussion board” time. Where students post to the discussion board while simultaneously engaged in a live session. This allows students to get clarification and guidance, both from the faculty and their peers as to how they can structure their discussion board posts. This has the added advantage of hearing the difference of how opinions can come across over voice compared to text, as students can collaborate on how to ensure their point is effective in both modalities.

Another method that was found to be successful was integrating a rubric for what effective discussion looked like. A post didn’t just summarize the topic at hand, it asked questions and made connections in new and innovative ways. Most importantly, a quality discussion board post engendered further discussion. In the same vein, essential to not just sparking quality discourse but keeping the conversation going was formulating a rubric for replies as well. Like any quality rubric, it was geared towards the course and the presenters will discuss both the overall assessment metrics that are involved in quality engagement, as well as how to drill down to the specific markers of quality discourse in a particular field or course.

Well-crafted discussion board prompts and options were also well-received by students. Often in the interest of economy of scale, a single prompt or question is posed by the faculty. However, if the chosen prompt does not interest a student, they won’t engage as well if they did get to choose. The ability to choose the topic is one reason people engage so much on social media, and so little in class discussion. If we allow students to choose which question (on a theme), they are engaging with- it allows them to be more active participants in defining their learning, as well as more likely to engage with material at large.

A point of concern many faculty raise is also another opportunity for active learning and engagement with the class. For larger classes especially, monitoring and grading both discussion boards and replies is untenable. While we’d hope faculty for such courses are supported with necessary resources, we know far too often that is not the case. At this stage, we will also ask the audience how they handle engagement in their like situations as well. After collecting and sharing the responses from the audience, we will share a strategy we have found to be successful in our institution: student moderators.

Student moderators as a mechanism of effective discussions can be extremely impactful. It makes students active architects of their learning. Building on the concept of active learning and Universal Design for Learning, students here transition from passive consumers to active architects of their and their peers learning. Student moderators (who rotate on a set basis), are responsible for curating the discussion between students, ensuring discourse stays on topic, respectful, and substantive. At the end of a given module the moderators submit a one page “slide” summary on the discussion. This can focus on common points, the extremes of different takes on key points, and key takeaways.

Alternative modalities of engagement: 

First, the modality of most LMS integrated discussion boards are wholly unsuitable to actual discourse. The interface is clunky and difficult to use, with non-text media slow or unsupported entirely. To truly capture the multi layered,multifaceted nature of active discussion, faculty can choose to select a platform that is more suited to it. The presenters will discuss and gather from the audience which platforms they found useful (ie: FlipGrid, Slack) as well as defining what are the essential underlying components of a platform conducive to effective discussions.

Level of Participation:

This is a highly participatory session. Throughout the session the presenters will have participants share their experiences on how asynchronous discussions were utilized in their institutions courses Following presenting the broad problem and some solutions we have found effective; participants can choose to move to scaffolded engagement breakout rooms. Essentially, after presenting the problem at large audience members will have the option of moving into a breakout room guided by a presenter focused on one following topics:

  • Curating effective Discussions
  • Integration of Multimedia Discussion Boards in STEM Courses

These breakout rooms will discuss the overall theme through the lens of the specific topic, collaborating on a joint resource document that discusses specific challenges, solutions to those challenges, and resources that can support those solutions. 

Participants can choose to interact with the session during the presentation and during the breakout rooms through the chat, audio/video, in the shared resource document, or just listen and not directly interact with the presenter and other audience members. This presentation allows all levels of engagement, depending on what the audience members prefer.

Throughout the presentation the presenters will ask participants to share their experiences on how asynchronous discussions are utilized in their institutions courses. 

Session Goals:

Participants who attend this session will emerge with: 

  • Knowledge of the nuances of building quality discussion into courses.
  • Knowledge of how to maintain quality posts and discourse through rubrics
  • Strategies maintaining engagement (even in large classes).
  • Strategies at integrating multimedia into their course discussion boards.