Tips for Overcoming Online Discussion Board Challenges

Discussion boards are often viewed as the heart of online courses, and for good reason: the students can interact with one another 24/7, sharing, debating, and offering ideas, insights, suggestions, and information that stimulate the learning process. Yet challenges do happen in discussion, and these can be formidable. Left alone, they can quickly limit the effectiveness of any discussion and create problems throughout the online course.

If you are having problems in your discussion, there’s a good chance one or more of the following suggestions will help:

Conflict in the discussion: It would be wonderful if the discussion went as planned with each student jumping in with substantive and polite comments, but that is not the real world of the online course. With such a diversity of students and with the anonymity of the online environment (although students can see one another’s names, the lack of a physical presence often gives a faux image of students being “invisible” to one another), conflicts of ideas, beliefs, insights, and suggestions can arise. Left unchecked, these can throw a discussion off track and negatively impact the course.

Solution: Each conflict presents teachable moments where we can teach the importance of debate, healthy discussion, keeping emotions in check, the value of opposing views, and how this type of conflict can be valuable by introducing ideas and approaches that others had not previously considered. The use of a general email/announcement to the class, and an active presence in the discussion can turn conflict into something positive. (If one or more students persist, do contact them individually.)

Personal attacks and bullying: These can be an escalation of conflict, the result of students’ beliefs (religious, philosophical, etc.), or a personality trait. Left alone, these students can discourage other students’ participation in discussion and could contribute to students dropping the course. It also creates a bad “vibe” in discussion.

Solution: Active intervention is important, beginning with a general posting in the discussion thread (never single students out, of course, except for positive comments). If this does not help, then the students need to be contacted individually, first via email, then with a phone call if the email is not successful. (Note: Most schools have policies in place for such situations; it is important to check with one’s supervisor to be certain of any school policy for situations like these.)

Students who do not contribute to discussion threads: Some students may feel shy about opening up in discussion. Others may be somewhat intimidated by what they view as student postings better than their own. This can result in limited discussion and discussion where minimally involved students are ignored. Again, this can lead to students becoming inactive in class or dropping the course.

Solution: For students who post minimally, be sure to pick a few of their postings as positive examples of good postings. (Always include others students: this not only balances the mix, that is, no one is singled out, but it also lets the shy student know his/her postings are as good as those of others in the class). For the absent student, individual emails and/or calls are the ticket, as much can be accomplished when the student feels you really do care—and you can also learn of any underlying problems the student may have.

Students plagiarizing other students’ postings: If left unchecked, the guilty students will continue, with more arrogance toward getting a good grade with minimal work—no good to the student for learning the course material. For those students whose work is plagiarized or who are aware of this, it can make for a very dispirited class, especially if they feel the instructor does not care. Finally, doing nothing sends the message that cheating is OK in life.

Solution: Immediately contact the offending student(s)—privately—while abiding by your school’s policy on this. This is a great opportunity for a teachable moment. Remember that students might not be aware that they are plagiarizing. Posting good materials about plagiarism at the beginning of the course with real-life examples of how plagiarism can be harmful can help to minimize any type of plagiarism in the class.

Going off track from the discussion topic: Discussion topics are set for a reason: to fortify the course learning of the primary subject. If students are allowed to digress into other areas, the purpose of a discussion topic and its learning impact will be lost.

Solution: Monitor discussion on a constant basis and when the topic goes awry, give a gentle nudge to get it back on track. You can mention the students’ zeal and excitement for being involved in discussion, but always remind all of the need to really master the topic and that each post on a discussion thread topic takes the course deeper and wider, making for a richer learning experience.

Students offering very weak, non-substantive posts: Writing “I agree” or “That’s cool!” or “Nice post” offers little. If students see others doing this on a regular basis, they may take a minimalist approach as well. The more posts like this, the thinner the impact of discussion, and some students will stay away believing not much can be learned from the discussion.

Solution: Post examples of substantive posts. Have students look at their postings as if they were receiving the information and ask: What value does this post hold? Pick up on some weak discussion postings, and show students how they can be nicely expanded into solid, meaningful posts. This will result in a balanced number of student posts and content—the perfect mix for any discussion.

Errol Craig Sull has been teaching online courses for more than 15 years and has a national reputation in the subject, both writing and conducting workshops on it. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his next book — How to Become the Perfect Online Instructor.

Excerpted from “Teaching Online With Errol: Successfully Overcoming the Major Challenges of Online Discussion.” Online Classroom, (October 2011): 6-7.