Discussion Boards in Online Courses

Many online courses make extensive use of discussion forums or discussion boards with good reason. The technology is well established and ideal for asynchronous interaction. The instructor creates a “forum” with some instructions and a writing prompt for the students. The instructor may create “threads” in that forum to break the discussion into multiple ideas or concepts. The instructor may also choose to require each student to create their own thread and respond to the prompt before being able to see what other students have posted. There’s no correct way to do a discussion board, but there are ways of creating better discussions that result in greater insight for students and give you a tool to assess the student’s understanding.

The Mechanics of a Typical Discussion

In a basic discussion forum, the instructor provides an initial post. Students are given a deadline to create a response based on the writing prompt. Students are then given a second deadline to read other student posts and provide feedback to one or more of those. The instructor may employ a rubric to assess the discussion and this can make grading faster as well as more consistent.


Students as Leaders in the Discussion

In some cases, students may be given roles (especially in small group discussions). The most common role is the discussion leader. This person generally interacts with most of the other participants and generates new discussion by asking related questions. The success of this type of discussion depends heavily on two major factors. First, what academic level are the participants? Undergraduate students may require more supervision in tasks such as this and definitely require detailed instructions with examples. It may work best with more advanced students.


Whole Class Discussion vs. Small Groups

Some discussions include all members of the class while others are limited to small groups of 5-7 participants. There are several things to consider before deciding whether to go big or small. In a class-wide discussion forum, students may struggle to find something unique or original to say about the topic. In that case, it may be better to assign groups to participate in their own forums. This makes it easier for students to make real contributions to the discussion rather than “I agree Erica” or “great point James.”


Writing Good Discussion Prompts

The key to a quality discussion is the assignment the students are given. Questions that can be answered with a yes or no will make for a very short and concise discussion. Questions should be framed in a way to encourage students to think about alternatives and possibilities. Controversial topics may even be appropriate but require much more supervision on the instructor’s part to make sure no misunderstandings occur.


More Than Just Words

Consider using video or audio as part of your discussions. Students can easily record themselves answering questions with their smartphone cameras. These recordings can be uploaded into Blackboard’s regular discussion boards or included in more advanced discussion tools like VoiceThread. Many students like the option to speak rather than type a response and it can even break up the monotony of weekly text-based interactions.

Discussions often play a significant role in online courses. With some preparation, these discussions can be a terrific way to engage your learners in the course. Now that you’ve learned more about discussions, it’s time to learn about providing feedback and grading assignments in an online course. You can also review the previous lesson – Interactions in an Online Course.


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