discussion board assignments
The use of online discussion in both blended and fully online courses has made clear that those exchanges are more productive if they are structured, if there’s a protocol that guides the interaction. This kind of structure is more important in the online environment because those discussions are usually asynchronous and minus all the nonverbal cues that facilitate face-to-face exchanges. But I’m wondering if more structure might benefit our in-class discussions as well.
Students struggle with academic discourse. They have conversations (or is it chats?) with each other, but not discussions like those we aspire to have in our courses. And although students understand there’s a difference between the two, they don’t always know exactly how they’re supposed to talk about academic content when discussing it with teachers and classmates. Would providing more structure provide that clarity and make the value of discussions more obvious to students?
Most online faculty know that discussion is one of the biggest advantages of online education. The increased think-time afforded by the asynchronous environment, coupled with the absence of public speaking fears, produces far deeper discussion than is usually found in face-to-face courses.
In small online courses, instructors have the luxury of participating in frequent personal interactions with students in online discussions. But doing this with more than 15 students can be difficult. Fortunately, there are ways to maintain instructor presence and participation in online discussions without becoming overwhelmed. In an interview with Online Classroom, Heidi Ash, online program director for the Department of Health Studies at Texas Woman’s University, offered the following ways to address this issue:
Faculty use asynchronous discussions to extend and enhance instructional practices in the online classroom. It is widely reported that online discussions play an integral role in facilitating students’ learning, as well as fostering dialogue, critical thinking, and reflective inquiry (Kayler & Weller, 2007; Morris, Finnegan, & Sz-Shyan, 2005). Despite faculty’s knowledge that discussion forums can serve as a useful learning tool, online discussions are not easy to establish and manage.
When Hayley Lake, lecturer at Eastern Washington University, got the opportunity to develop an online version of Survey of Alcohol & Drug Problems, a multidisciplinary course that draws students from a variety of majors and backgrounds, she knew that online discussions would be an essential feature of the course. She had taught the course in the face-to-face environment and saw a lot of room for improvement—despite the diversity of students and the inherent potential for lively discussions, the course lacked engagement and rigor.
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.
If you’re having trouble getting students to engage in the discussion forum, perhaps it’s time to rethink how you use this tool. “Think of it as a place to foster interaction between the students through a variety of means rather than just asking them questions, although that’s great too,” says Chris Laney, professor of history and geography at Berkshire Community College.
Clear expectations, structure, and instructor intervention can go a long way toward getting students highly engaged and highly interactive in online discussions.
As an online instructor, I require my students to engage in weekly discussion forums. In the online college environment, discussion forums are designed to simulate a professor and his or her students engaged in a traditional classroom discussion. Students respond to a question and then reply to the responses of their classmates. The point is to keep the discussion moving, keep students engaged in the topic for the week, and facilitate learning.
I found a nice set of online discussion activities that strike me as good in-class discussion activities as well. One of the reasons discussion so often fails or doesn’t realize much of its potential is the absence of structure. The discussion is too open-ended. It wanders around and is easily sidetracked. I’m not discounting the value of an occasional unstructured exchange, but when students are still learning what academic discourse entails, a structure can keep the discussion focused and on track.