Nice to meet you: Discussion boards in online or hybrid learning models

In my experiments with what I call a BOLD (or Blended Online Learning Model) of instructional design, I’ve come to love the discussion board. I say this reluctantly, because I really hated the discussion board for a long, long time. The discussion board felt like the worst of the online world: full of opinions, dominated by one person, and completely untethered from reality. I thought it was going to be a place where students got lost in terrible functionality and would have to wade through a clunky interface just to post “I’m here” comments. I could not have been more wrong!

In my BOLD learning modality (which includes face to face meetings with students, as well as asynchronous learning experiences) I use discussion boards for three main purposes.

1. I use discussion boards to get students writing, some for the first time in a while. I find that a discussion board conversation can be a good warm up exercise about a week before an assignment is due, mostly because it gets them writing and crafting their thoughts on “paper” at the beginning of the term.

2. I use discussion boards to get students talking, to each other and to me. With the right prompts, a discussion board can be a great place for students to open up, to share their background and their concerns, and to connect with other members of their learning community. Even my most introverted students are more likely to connect with a classmate or two after sharing their “getting to know you” post and I see the benefits of those connections throughout the term. My requests for being on a team with another specific student skyrocket after our “So…What Brings You Here” discussion board assignment and these requests come from students who did not know each other prior to class!

3. I use discussion boards to help students build the critical thinking and reflective practice skills they need to succeed in the course. By challenging students to discuss and reflect upon specific topics using prompts and micro case studies on a discussion board with low stakes and short posting requirements, I can give them a safe space to build the muscles they need to think critically about difficult or challenging topics. By requiring them to both author a post (or thread) and to reply to a post or thread authored by another student, they practice their critique and empathy skills. And perhaps most importantly, I can use this space to evaluate where we are at as a learning community on writing skills, critical thinking skills and even more mechanical issues like citation skills and responding to or following directional prompts in writing.

My BOLD courses have taught me that the discussion board is not the world of trolls and online attendance. Instead, it has become a valuable part of all of my blended online learning delivery work, and I hope you give it a try too.

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