Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Pros and Cons of the Discussion Board

Students hate discussion boards--often with a degree of intensity that is absent from their work in the class itself.  Instructors, on the other hand, like them.  We may not love the effort it takes to manage a discussion, but we appreciate the medium as a way of pushing students to think more deeply and to express their thoughts more clearly.  This is especially true for large enrollment classes, where students can often get by without much active engagement with the course content.

I sometimes wonder how I would feel about discussion boards if they had been around back in my college days (not *that* long ago, but just long enough ago to predate the spread of the internet to college campuses).  I like to think that I would have loved it--I am an introvert even now but was especially reticent in college--but I suspect I would feel about it the way I currently feel about email from students: it is nice to have at times but it also means that I don't leave a class behind when I leave the classroom. 

I first incorporated a discussion board (I use Piazza) into my blended, large enrollment Intro to Ancient Rome class in Spring 2013.  I added it as a way to encourage more active learning from the students and also as a way to increase out of class engagement with the course content.  I had two TAs moderate the discussion (one of them also graded the posts on a 0-2 scale).  Threads were open for 48 hours, each student had to post five times over the course of the semester, and later posters were meant to extend the observations of earlier posters.  It was an incredible amount of work for the TAs, not least because they had to find ways to open up new avenues of inquiry on some of the heavier trafficked threads.

I loved the discussion board.  As I read through the posts, I could see that many of the students were wrestling with big ideas.  They made interesting and unexpected connections.  I could also see misunderstandings more clearly.  Often, I would talk about the major points of discussion from the board during the next class period.  Yet, in the two semesters that I used it, it was the one element of the course that the students did not like.  Their rationale: it felt like a waste of time to them.  I made an effort to connect it to class discussions and to talk about why I thought it was a valuable learning activity, but they never bought in.  In part, this is because the class size is too big.  They weren't really reading their classmates' posts (certainly not the ones who posted in response to them); and they rarely visited the board if it was not one of their five occasions for posting. 

I came to realize that, while it was a valuable teaching tool for me, I didn't have a good way to better manage how the students used the discussion board to support their own learning.  This coming fall semester, with a small class (250 students instead of 400), I am replacing the discussion board with worksheets.  The worksheets have 3 questions.  They start with a prompt and then have two follow-up questions.  In essence, it is exactly the same exercise as the discussion board but without the peer-to-peer interaction.  I was sad to remove that opportunity for interaction; but suspect that, individually, the students will get more out of the worksheets than they did from posting on a few threads.  It would have been nice to see more peer-to-peer interaction on the board, but that was probably unreasonable given the size of the class (and, thus, the fact that most students didn't know one another).  The move to worksheets should also mean significantly less work for one of my TAs.

As I've been developing the online version of the Rome class, I've gone back and forth on including a discussion board as part of the graded work.  I will certainly use Piazza as a clearinghouse for information about course logistics or a place where students can post questions.  I'm less sure about including it as a graded element--in part because I have no real sense of who the audience will be (immediately or in the future).  I can imagine that, unlike my campus course, my online students might like a discussion board.  They might value that peer-to-peer interaction much more than do my residential students.  Likewise, it should be a smaller group, which makes it much less challenging to facilitate a rewarding conversation. 

For the time being, I am thinking that I will include a discussion prompt at the end of each module (there are 8 modules).  The prompt will be something subjective and will encourage the students to synthesize the material they've learned in the module and to make connections to previous modules.  In a sense, I will use the discussion in place of a summary lecture.  This is very much in keeping with my general emphasis on student construction of knowledge rather than professorial delivery of content.  I'll see how this goes and make adjustments as needed in future iterations.


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