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The Elephant in the LMS: The Hidden Power of Discussion Boards (Part Two)

  • 8 Min Read

“Discussion forums are the sort of ed tech you hope creative teachers will hack mercilessly, creating in their place a means through which students and teachers can interact in substantive, relevant ways.” — Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris

What do online students (and occasionally instructors) consistently say they dislike in the online learning experience?

  • Untimely/late responses to requests for support
  • Grading occurring weeks after a due date
  • No feedback on assignments or assessments
  • A poor mobile experience
  • Threaded discussions

If you didn’t get a chance to read Part One of this two-part blog series, that last answer may surprise you. But it’s true: Students and a healthy number of instructors largely dislike threaded discussions.

Without rehashing all the reasons why discussions can be so problematic, let me also remind you of a crucial, antithetical notion from Part One: No matter how many people may despise them, discussions may still be the single richest source of success (completion/grade) prediction that schools have across all modalities of delivery.

The Opportunities That Lie Within Discussion Boards

I’m hoping to help kick-start a much-needed and much-bigger conversation around how practitioners (faculty, designers, developers, etc.) can transform the discussion experience via discussion boards. But before we get into some applications and ideas, let me begin with some fundamentals and definitions so that we are all starting from the same page.

  1. An online threaded discussion should not be confused with a posting forum. (Unless it is an intentional, pedagogical strategy.) In the late ’90s, forums and boards really started to become prolific. Users (often anonymous) could post a thought, idea or statement simply for others to read. Often, commenters never returned to that board or that post and so there was usually little or no follow-up conversation. But discussions for an online class are typically not well-served by one-off posts. If we agree that learning conversations often need to converge and diverge, explore, criticize, or support, then I think we would also agree that a student making a single post about pretty much anything is less than consequential.
  2. Discussions typically need temporality. Again, unless an intentional, pedagogical strategy requires an online discussion to remain open for several weeks or an entire semester (as opposed to face-to-face discussions, which are confined to class periods), an online discussion should be available and open for a set time. With online classes, discussions often cover one week of content, but this decision should be made purposefully.
  3. Discussions almost always require pragmatic accountability. I get it. Everyone wishes that all students were wholly engaged and/or that every discussion was so interesting it would generate universal participation, but that’s just not realistic. While some students desire the learning that comes from exploring and working through discussed elements, most are interested only in what they need to do to move forward in the class. Architects of learning sometimes must cajole or fool students into learning, and a discussion board can help make that happen.
  4. Discussion boards may be the best place to teach students based on observations of how students are (or aren’t) interpreting, ingesting, contextualizing, etc. I require students to read every post made by the instructor, and—to keep students honest—I long ago stole a great idea from another professor. Three times per term I have a quiz based solely on my posts. I try to use interesting and unique stories to help students understand concepts and theories, but in doing so, it affords me the ability to ask students about a child raised by wolves or the real reason the Titanic sank. So, these quizzes (more like check-ins) are just a few questions that, if the student has read my posts, are quickly and easily recognizable. The quizzes take less than five minutes and most students either get 100% or 0%.
  5. Typically, the most effective discussion boards I have seen require students to be critical of other’s posts, e.g., ideas, conclusions, strategies. So, in addition to asking students to back up every opinion-driven statement with citations, it’s equally powerful to have students look for holes in the arguments of peers, using credible, supported sources to back up their reasoning. While this can be very hard and uncomfortable for younger students, who have largely been conditioned to criticize only when anonymous via social media platforms, after a few discussions the process can be enriching and rewarding. And it definitely promotes learning. This tactic requires a facilitator who is involved and always vigilant, but the end results can be quite remarkable. In fact, I’d say that this might be how online learning overtakes face-to-face experiences as a superior method for critical reflection and presentation.

Top Discussion Board Strategies and Techniques

Over 20+ years in education, I’ve seen some discussion hacks that were particularly clever, interesting and/or engaging. What follows are some of my favorite techniques. While this list cannot possibly be exhaustive, I hope it spurs some ideas for you!

To begin, let’s make sure we’re thinking outside the box regarding the kinds of pedagogical interactions that some of the most engaging practitioners leverage. Here are various ways discussion boards can be utilized to great effect:

  • Question and Answer
  • Student Review
  • Student Facilitation (student as subject matter expert)
  • Defend the Oppositional Thinking
  • Introductions (with ties to student goals)
  • Networking
  • Professor’s Office
  • Audio Presentations
  • Gamified Learning
  • Stump the Professor
  • Case Studies
  • Debates
  • Devil’s Advocate
  • Group/Team Projects
  • Do-First Activities (generative learning experiences)
  • Video Presentations/Reactions
  • Screen-Share Presentations
  • Peer Feedback
  • Competitions
  • Constructive Criticism of Peer Conclusions

As you can see, there are many ways to slice and dice a discussion board. Like almost any tool, you want to determine your learning outcome and then see if you can “bend” the board to help students achieve that outcome in a meaningful way.

Going Beyond the Basics of Discussion Board Usage

Once you get the hang of it, you can really start to do some cool things with discussions.

  1. Some weeks, I have students perform their discussions with a project management tool like Trello, Asana or Teams. Seeing how the discussions fold into their project, while observing the context markers of tasks, due dates and assignees reveals much about a group’s path.
  2. Other weeks are audio/video only, making use of the discussion board as a holder of videos. (Alternatively, I sometimes send my students to Flipgrid.) Just remember that the multimedia capabilities in the learning management system (LMS) discussion boards have gotten quite rich.
  3. In some classes, I’ll include hidden items that direct students to concealed discussions or hidden content discussed on a non-hidden board. The result? Students spend a lot more time going through the course trying to hunt down the special content.

In terms of advanced discussion board usage, let me share two final big ideas. I have seen both used quite effectively and highly recommend their inclusion in any semester-long class.

Make Students Act as Facilitators

First, I suspect you will agree that when a person teaches something to another person, they typically learn the material better, faster, deeper and with more contextualization than otherwise. It makes sense since teachers need to think about how students interpret both the ideas and the forms that are presented.

As such, I highly recommend the practice of students facilitating at least one discussion per term. Class of 30? No worries—assign two students as the co-facilitators each week. Class of 300? No problem there either—segment the class into five groups of 60 or 10 groups of 30 so that everyone gets a chance to be a facilitator.

The upside for students should be obvious. When a student is graded for being “Expert of the Week,” assuming they take the assignment seriously, they’re going to do some preparation. Students will read ahead, do independent research to find external sources and assets, create interview guides, etc. If two or three students are co-facilitators, I’ve seen preparation meetings and strategy sessions take place to help the group attack the discussion effectively.

The upside for instructors should also be noted. Obviously, if the student-facilitators post anything in error, the instructor needs to act as the safety net to ensure accuracy. But that experience alone can provide the instructor with powerful insights about misunderstandings that might be felt across the entire class, not just the facilitator. In using this strategy, I can personally report only two to four times per 16-week semester when I have had to correct a facilitator’s post.

Beyond correction though, the student-facilitated model affords a faculty member the ability to do some interesting things. The professor can play devil’s advocate at times, arguing both sides of a position and forcing students to pick a side. When students are the main facilitators, the instructor has a chance to bring in different research or to use other metaphors/analogies than if they had to focus only on the primary discussion posts.

Run Online Debates

Second, I would label debates as an advanced usage of discussions. If you plan to hold an online, asynchronous debate, know that you will need to pay very close attention to the posts. You will likely need to set some strong parameters about what constitutes a respectful argument. You might also want to require that all argumentative posts include quotes or citations. But beyond that, consider a few things with debates that can really make a difference in learning:

  • Have the students debate you. Show them how to create a supported argument while also poking holes in their thinking as you support or defend a position respectfully and credibly.
  • Have the students support a position that is not their own. (Survey them first, then put them on the team that supports the opposite view.)
  • Play both sides of the fence. Poke holes in known arguments on both sides of the debate as you support both student positions.
  • Give extra credit if a student can convince another student to change positions.

There Is Power in a Discussion Board

I hope you see the potential power of discussion boards. They can really make a major difference in any classroom (continuing the conversation after a live class, adding context to a hybrid experience or developing a fully online learning community), and they should be a vital tool in your kit.

From ensuring all students have a voice to getting a sense of how every student is (or is not) processing information, you can use discussions to present, question, argue, juxtapose and more.

Good luck and good learning.

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