March 28th, 2014

The Online Discussion Board: Opening the Gateway to New Learning



In the online instructional environment, the discussion questions, posts, and responses are the lifeblood of the course. Although writing formal papers and completing quizzes are typical components of online courses, the gateway to new learning occurs within the discussion forums. The discussion board expands and contracts, or breathes with the relevancy of the question to the course, current events, and experiences of the faculty and students. The development of engaging discussion questions and statements can be as easy as watching the news, reading current articles, or reviewing internet news sites, and then relating the content to the course. Faculty should use their imagination to connect current events to course-related material. Questions should be not answered from lists from the textbook or the regurgitation of content from the current unit’s assessment.

In a tradition classroom setting, discussions can sometimes take on a life of their own and often are dominated by the same handful of students. In an online course, responses are generally required by all students; therefore, the conversations should be highly engaging and shared by the entire class. The challenge facing faculty is how to create discussion questions or statement topics that keep students involved and engaged. The following suggestions may help boost the level of student engagement in your online course discussions:

  • Discussion topics should be relevant to course content, yet broad enough for personal and professional experiences to apply. New learning occurs when students recognize the applicability of the concept to their current job, organization, or future career aspirations.
  • Discussion topics should relate to current events, when possible.
  • Discussion topics should pique student interests and concerns within their field of study.
  • Discussion topics should build upon one another, unit to unit, or week to week.
  • Discussion responses/posts should require critical thinking without excessive research. Although students need to be motivated to move beyond responding with simplistic opinions; allowing free-flowing and topically relevant conversations to flourish creates a comfortable learning environment.
  • Discussion responses/posts should be free from excessive requirements and restrictions. Quantity might be a requirement, yet the focus should be placed on quality. Placing a heavy penalty on a well-conceived, well-written post that is a few words short of the minimum word count is a de-motivator.
  • Discussion responses/posts from faculty should stimulate further discussion without additional requirements. Attentive students recognize the course and discussion requirements. As instructors, we might ask follow-up questions to provoke a more in-depth response or to prompt new learning, yet we should not over-burden students to the point of frustration.
  • Discussion responses from faculty should facilitate, yet not dominate the discussion.

Institutional requirements for course discussions often drive faculty and student discussion activity to minimum levels of interaction and engagement, negating the benefits of a healthy debate between students and their course instructor. Although many online courses and discussion forum questions are pre-developed, requiring little development input from the instructor, you can still put your own stamp on the course.

Creating a learning environment and opening the gateway to diverse experiences, ideas, and opinions should be the focus of faculty and curriculum development team members when creating discussion forums. Affording faculty the opportunity to revise a following week’s discussion question to continue the topic, move the topic in another direction, or include breaking news widens the gateway to increased student involvement and learning. Breathing life into all areas of the course begins with the first breath, an engaging topic, and faculty creativity. As faculty, we must be the difference that drives new learning and widens the gateway to student success!