November 11th, 2010

Making Online Discussion Boards Work for Skills-Based Courses

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If you teach a skills-based course and wonder how online discussion can enhance the learning experience, consider Roger Gee’s approach to the use of online discussions in his introduction to accounting course.

Gee, a professor at San Diego Mesa College, did not want his online courses to become correspondence courses, so he began using discussions for accounting calculations. He soon realized that this approach didn’t work very well. “I found out that if the first person who did the calculation got it wrong, then the other students followed that student and everybody got the problem wrong,” Gee says. “So now I pick topics that do not involve calculations. In other words, I am looking for them to come up with some kind of opinion and then back that opinion up with some facts that they’ve culled from the chapter, homework examples, or textbook appendices.”

Each unit has a discussion that occurs after the students read the materials, view the PowerPoint lesson, and take a quiz. “They should have had some experience with the materials to begin with. If I have the discussion earlier, they haven’t absorbed enough of the course material to make their input relevant. They have to have read the material and at least gone through the PowerPoint presentation so they can get the lay of the land,” Gee says.

There are usually approximately 35 students enrolled in Gee’s course. To improve the learning experience, he divides each class into two study groups. Each group has its own discussions on the same topics. Originally Gee had all the students in one discussion group, but this proved to be a bit unwieldy, particularly for the students. “When I did discussions with the class as a whole, the students grumbled about having to read repetitive messages. They were much more willing to participate in the study group if there were relatively few messages,” Gee says.

The majority of the activity within the study groups involves discussions of topics that Gee introduces. “I try to avoid pure accounting-type questions. Very few of my students will get a degree in accounting. Most of my students are taking the course for some other reason, so I try to make the discussion revolve around general ethics or how an issue affects each student in his or her personal life,” Gee says.

“For example, one of our discussions is about future value and present value analysis. Why do people invest in retirement plans? How do they choose their retirement plans? Using future value analysis, if they steadily put money in a retirement plan, because of interest and dividends that money eventually grows, and by the time they retire they have a nice little nest egg to live on, unless the banks screw it up like they did this past year. This is an example in which I would have students think about their personal finances. What would be the advantage of getting started in some kind of retirement early in their career? I would come up with a discussion on that. How does this affect their lives?”

Each discussion begins with a posting by Gee. He expects each student to post at least one message and reply to another post. “I want their messages to be business-like. I’m looking for good spelling and proper grammar. I don’t want the Twitter-type stuff. I want them to post the kinds of messages they would if they were sharing with their boss in a business,” he says.

In addition to these graded discussions, Gee encourages his students to work within the study groups to help each other. “As a community college, we open the doors to anybody, so we get students fresh out of high school. Some are underprepared. Other students have been working in accounting for ten or fifteen years and can’t go further until they have an accounting degree. Those students bring a lot of technical knowledge to these discussions. Very often if a student is a having trouble with the homework, these experienced students step up to the plate and explain concepts to the less-experienced students.”

Reprinted from “How to Use Discussions in Skills-Based Courses.” Online Classroom, Oct. 2009: 3.