This is a PechKucha (20 slides for 20 seconds) created for the 2018 DePaul Teaching & Learning Conference in which I hope to share ways of finding value in online discussion. You can download the handouts here.
In Internet terms, online discussion is ancient history. The Internet has been around since 1969 and there have been many examples of online discussion platforms that have been leveraged for online learning during this period. This is a mechanism that works, and you see the mechanics evident in most social media platforms.

The platonic ideal for online learning is three complementary models of communication in which students interact with other students, their teachers, and the content. The discussion board has been viewed as a robust way to support online learning that is critical to student success. The technology is easy to use, and the ideal use of this technology helps student learning.

So, why then are discussion boards seen as tedious, non-essential, joy-sucking mechanisms of torture for both faculty and students? And why do we continue to use them when they fail in this way?

Perhaps the reason is the typical approach to discussion boards is formulaic – post one original statement, and then reply to two of your peers. This is hardly discussion, and results in many students simply visiting the discussion board once to paste their initial post and then quickly knock off two replies to fulfill the assignment.
The failure of this design is not unknown to students.
Then we have the issue of imbalance.

Luckily, we have academics on hand to research the problem. Such as this meta-analysis of 14 years’ worth of peer-reviewed work on the use of discussion boards in higher education. Published in 2015, we have “A systematic review of empirical studies on participants’ interactions in internet-mediated discussion boards as a course component in formal higher education settings.”

The key points are:

  • Participation was the foundation for interaction
  • Instructor support and feedback (including assessment) was highly valued, and over time affected students’ participation and peer interaction quality and quantity
  • Peer interactions started slowly with frequent off-task and disruptive posts
  • The majority of peer interactions initially involved responding to an assignment, followed by supporting and constructive posts, with less dialogue and, rarely, challenging posts
  • Interactions between students and instructor were overall less than peer interactions, and decreased over time while peer interactions stayed consistent
  • Assigned student leaders and/or moderators affected the quality and quantity of discussion
  • Perceived self-competency and intrinsic motivation led to higher quantity and quality interaction, which might relate to taking a dominating or leading role
  • Level of familiarity and relatedness to peers, environment, and discussion topics led to higher level peer interaction
  • The dynamics of interaction varied among groups, and was related to collaborative assignments, the existence of highly motivated members and higher-level elaboration, and the opportunity for members to contribute
  • Precise, well-reasoned response.
  • Citation of source material (link).
  • Supports position with factual information.
  • Offers relevant information.
  • Makes note of outside source material.
  • Participates.

So one way we can move forward is to incentivize more thoughtful and collaborative behavior in discussion that changes the paradigm. Here in this rubric students receive up to five points a week for posting, with a maximum of three points for a “perfect” post. This simplifies grading for the instructor, and provides a flexible structure that suggests to students the value of frequent interaction and more critical thinking.

Rubrics work best when you provide real examples of what you are looking for, and how you will grade. So with the rubric I share examples of previous student work and how this student work equates to my grading scheme. To do this, I take a three point example and then simplify the example to demonstrate two points and simplify even further to demonstrate one point.

What I am striving for is something better than the in-the-moment classroom example, where discussion is largely anecdote, barely remembered facts, and quite possible incorrect information. Online, students have the ability to support their statements with hyperlinks to articles and research. Critical thinking based upon publicly available facts is what I want my students to demonstrate.

This can be quite intensive for the professor at the start of the course, where you want to model good practice and write in he manner you wish all your students to write with each post that you make. Providing hyperlinks and multimedia (such as video and images) in your posts demonstrates to the students what is possible in this medium.

To reduce faculty workload in later weeks, and to motivate students to produce their best work you can assign discussion leaders. Their role is to facilitate discussion that week and to summarize eventual findings. The role of discussion leader is rotated until every student has taken part, using groups to manage class size if required.

To help make discussion have more meaning to students beyond the points for the exercise I base some midterm and final exam questions upon the topics (and more importantly) conclusions drawn in the weekly discussion. This incentivizes student to actually read the work of others and think more deeply on the topics.

To make the job of teaching a little more efficient, I suggest that students post questions to the discussion board rather than emailing me (unless the question is personal or embarrassing). This results in fewer duplicate questions to me asking about deadlines or clarifications, but also means that students who might be reticent in reaching out can take advantage of seeing what others are asking.

Feedback is necessary for the success of an online class, so each week a recap of the pertinent points of the conversation can be shared. Providing acknowledgement to the students, and guidance towards where the valuable parts of the discussion exist.

Hopefully this has provided some useful ideas towards improving online discussion.