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The Elephant in the LMS: Why We Need to Discuss Discussions (Part One)

  • 8 Min Read

By learning how to design effective LMS discussions, we can help make the classroom a more impactful place to learn.


The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.—F. Scott Fitzgerald

Over the past 12 months, almost every meeting I’ve attended has included diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) as a topic. These are top-of-mind issues for higher education admins today and are quite worthy of crucial conversations and critical reflection. But the conversation is not usually reflective. Instead, it’s typically panicked or solution-seeking, a result of the academy largely ignoring its own advice for years.

Unfortunately, DEI isn’t an isolated example. We’ve seen similarly mercurial, frenetic responses to a whole host of matters.

Higher education has seemed to struggle with a fundamental tenet of critical thinking: allowing juxtaposing ideas to inform strategic planning.

With this in mind, I am going to ask you to do something difficult. I am going to ask you to hold two opposing concepts in your mind as I try to work through a very difficult online teaching and learning issue.

Threaded Discussions: Valuable or an Achilles’ Heel?

Last week, I participated in a webinar with Phil Hill, an expert and outside observer of the online education world. He was discussing where the online learning industry is as well as where it is headed and made some poignant observations while sharing some of the research he has aggregated and/or done. One of those observations was particularly important and should likely see readers of this blog at least pause to consider: “LMS companies,” said Hill, “really must tackle the Achilles’ heel of their platforms—the threaded discussion.” As soon as I heard Phil say that, I harkened back to an antithetical and truly valuable piece of data that I have had in my pocket and believed to be true for over a decade: There is no greater nor richer source of course completion prediction than a student’s interaction with the course discussion(s).

Hill went on to elaborate about the woes of traditional threaded discussions, but I suspect that if we all step back and reflect, we already know what was said. Most online students have come to genuinely dislike discussions. (Heck, many professors hate them too.) And the earliest formulas for discussion boards that simply asked for students to respond to a prompt were quickly identified as nothing more than a posting forum. (Scarily, these are still used by some educators.) But this process soon gave way to a more participation-centric approach to discussions, which persists today: Post a response to the professor’s question(s) and post a response to X number of students throughout the week, posting on multiple days.

Below I will explain what master instructors and designers already know concerning the problematic nature of this approach. Having done literally thousands of course audits, I assure you that this is likely representative of the majority of online discussions in use. And after COVID-19 saw just about every classroom go online, with many educators scrambling to simply put up something—anything—let’s just say this approach (and the previously described formulas) remain dominant.

Now, let’s talk about what this strategy typically elicits.

How Discussions Typically Unfold

First, a healthy proportion of the student population will game the system. That is, they will do the minimum amount of work to technically meet the requirements. This work may be posted at the last possible minute and as such, not contribute to any flow of a conversation. Minimally viable posts will be largely inconsequential and will rarely reflect critical thought, problem solving or even obvious usage of the course material. These same students are often those asking for minimum word counts, producing posts that are academically impotent.

Second, a smaller but still noticeable set of students begin to post prior to having read the materials or worked through the content. While they may wait until the last day of the discussion week to post their answer(s) to the professor, they are often quick to respond to classmates. The result? It is often the epitome of the blind leading the blind. The responses are often overly congenial, and in the event that they are constructive, the criticism is not just weak but typically incomplete.

Third, professors sometimes find students who want to take this opportunity to “show off” or digitally bully others, providing such long-form posts that nobody (including the professor) wants to read them.

If one is objective about these things, it is not hard to see why students dislike the busy work of discussions so much. Even when professors add other conditions or requirements, such as citations in all posts to make them more rigorous, a quick read of those boards still shows very disjointed discussions that are hard to define as actual conversations. And discussion locks—ensuring students cannot see other student posts until making their first post—have really just resulted in discussion questions and prompts being close-ended and weak (aka boring).

How Discussions Ideally Unfold

But, as many readers of this blog are aware, I have been in the LMS space a long time. In various capacities, I have had access to data for millions of student records over time. When I was the Chief Academic Officer at another LMS company, we performed deep and broad student success analysis, and much of that data pointed to discussions as a massively important factor for success in almost every way that word is used. Consider the following:

  • Classes with more discussions typically see better completion and grade rates than classes with fewer discussions, regardless of discipline.
  • Students who post more often typically persist and score higher than students who post less often.
  • Student posts with higher word and/or character counts lead to increases in retention and outcomes.
  • Instructors who post more often see better completion and grade rates for students than instructors who post less often.

Houston, we have a problem…

This data started to be uncovered around the time when discussion strategies were being honed, and experiments with online conversations were created by faculty, instructional designers and educational theorists alike. But here we can see a downside to some of education’s hyper-restrictive institutional review board/ethics practices. I do not know of many (any?) A/B tests performed by or for institutions with large-scale, widespread, extrapolated findings specific to discussion efficacy. (And more importantly, I do not know of anything longitudinal in nature.) We all know that schools are not allowed to treat one group differently from another if it is believed that one group will benefit more.

So, experiments such as the best methods for discussion boards were applied at the theoretical level, seeing only minor iterations happen over time. I already noted that after 2002, most schools abandoned the “post something” direction and began using the “post three to five times throughout the week” strategy. But the evolution seemed to stop there. Perhaps an even better use of Chris Rock’s definition for GED (the comedian says it means “good enough diploma”) is our context where it might mean “good enough discussion.”

In other words, once we reached this minimally viable product for discussion boards, most practitioners called it a day. And if we’re being honest, most LMSs stopped too. While some new video tools or other innovations have made their way into task bars, most (final) discussion boards still look like they did in 2012. Sure, a few start-ups have tried to break into the explicit discussion board market as plug-ins, but their usage is minimal. When it comes to discussions, education seemed to go into “set it and forget it” mode.

There Has to Be a Better Way

So, what do we do with these two oppositional thoughts? How can we consider discussions vitally important while at the same time feel that they’re largely annoying and less than useful in the learning experience? How can we improve an area of the course where the instructor can genuinely teach asynchronous, learner-based divergence, purposefully create meaningful conflict and capture one type of formative assessment with students agreeing that the discussions are both interesting and important?

First, we must hold both notions in our minds as we discuss all of them. I don’t care how much a specific teacher or professor loves a discussion board; if the majority of students hate it, then it will not be very effective. Similarly, I don’t care how many instructional designers bemoan the existence of discussion boards; show me a richer, more holistic magnifying glass for success, and we’ll talk.

Second, it’s time to start really discussing what study after study has shown us: Students do not learn much in many educational contexts. For my K-12 friends, see John Taylor Gatto’s Weapons of Mass Instruction or works by Diane Ravitch or Alfie Kohn to find meta-study after meta-analysis illustrating that students simply do not “learn” much in school. For my higher education colleagues, other than reading through piece after piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed, check out Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness’s Cracks in the Ivory Tower or Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. Or if you want a K-20 perspective, read Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education. Learning is rare in any/every classroom today.

On the other hand, students can learn a tremendous amount in almost any classroom if it’s set up effectively. And with all of the understanding we have around neuroscience, learning design, peer instruction, expert connection and more, a well-designed discussion may be a powerful step in the right direction.

So, we’ve kicked off a discussion about discussions—I hope you’ll come back for my next installment. In part two of this blog, I hope to bring you some ideas from the 10% of discussions I’ve seen or experienced that go above and beyond the typical strategies, trying to find ways to engage students meaningfully, intentionally and differently. And on your side, I hope you consider making this a topic of study and research, presenting findings at your next lunch-n-learn, conference presentation or journal submission. Let’s tame this elephant together, shall we?

Good luck and good learning.

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Table of Contents

  1. Threaded Discussions: Valuable or an Achilles’ Heel?
  2. How Discussions Typically Unfold
  3. How Discussions Ideally Unfold
  4. There Has to Be a Better Way