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“Post once, reply twice”: uninspiring online discussion boards and what to do about them

Have you up-skilled through a university or other higher education institution sometime over the past few years? Chances are that the course was online and that one of the assessment requirements was ‘participation’. Did that frustrate you? If yes, you are not alone. Compulsory participation in higher education courses frustrates many students. Remove the assessment requirement and the discussion boards are (almost) empty.

Does that mean students don’t want to collaborate? False premise. Most students want to work with other students, yet these environments fail to inspire.

Let me explain.

Have a look at the following discussion board question from an urban planning course: “Looking at the map of [insert name region], discuss possible locations for people who may eventually commute to work in [insert name city]”

It’s a typical ‘application’ question, it brings real-life to the learning process, and it asks the students to apply what they know to a new or different situation… so all good right? Wrong.

Say there are 40 students. The first student to post (a good ‘learning’ strategy to have! – pardon the sarcasm) will probably come up with something interesting. Perhaps – if we’re lucky – up to 6 students will be able to post something that others will find useful to read, maybe bring a new perspective. But then what? Responses become déja-vu. It gets harder and harder for every student to come up with something they are excited to share. Most likely they’ll find an answer in the forum that reflects what they wanted to say. It becomes an exercise in semantics: how to say the same using different words so you’re not caught copying other people’s ideas. Irritating!

Why is that? Although the instruction says ‘discuss’, this isn’t a good start for a real discussion. The question leads to a collection of individual answers. The tutor may throw in some probing to ‘deepen’ the thinking but – regardless of the good intentions – this doesn’t lead to a deeper discussion, let alone true collaboration and more meaningful learning.

In essence, unless your discussion is about a truly controversial issue with opposing views, nothing exciting will happen in that discussion board. So people don’t participate, unless they have to. That’s why the threat is considered necessary: if you don’t say anything you won’t get your grade. And then the ‘reply twice’ instruction is added to pretend the students are talking to each other. Huh?

So how then do you get a real and meaningful online discussion going?

To start, stop using the word “discuss”. Use “solve” instead. That changes the whole activity: your design of it and the learners’ approach to it. A discussion should be a means to an end. If we discuss just for the sake of discussing, it gets boring very quickly. What’s the point?

Happy learnerInstead, apply problem-based learning principles when conceptualizing what your students will DO (not just talk about). Ask yourself the following two key questions:

  • When students will apply X skills, what does a typical professional environment look like? (this is your context)
  • In this real-life situation, what tangible(s) do people typically produce when they apply these skills? An action plan? A budget? A presentation? A brief? (this is your deliverable)

Turn your whole group discussion into inspiring team tasks with a plenary to keep the whole group buzz going while everyone is hard at work. All asynchronous. Learn the nitty-gritty of designing engaging team tasks and you’ll be amazed at how this drastically improves participation and completion rates. When we are serious about applying adult learning principles there is no need to add assessment threats. Let’s make our activities exciting instead.


7 Responses to “Post once, reply twice”: uninspiring online discussion boards and what to do about them

  1. Good topic, good observations, good suggestions.

    Just as in the classroom, group dynamics come into play online.
    It is interesting to belong to an online group (general interest based, or academic course based)and to act as a “participant observer” and watch the “discussions” develop and think about the roles different “characters’ and personalities play. Some participants are leaders, some are lurkers, some are willing to take the time to develop an idea, some write reams without editing….some simply want to “earn” the”top contributor” badge, others just want to finish the course, and speed on to the next..

    The academic “Discuss x” had a different meaning from “Have a discussion about….”, or “Collaborate on…” In a “discuss x” type question the writer presents as many points of view as they can….supports or refutes them. (Analyse is a good synonym). One way to do this online is simply to have the students post their submissions “invisible” to the other participants until a posting deadline has passed.* (Difficult for asynchronous courses…)

    You are spot on in recognising that the designer of an online course needs to develop different ways of (a) teaching and (b) assessing.

    *posting online is very scary – one is very vulnerable. Maybe teachers need to give students a choice as to whether they want to make their submissions public or not, open to comments, or not.

    • Thanks for your comment Claudie.
      I find that because our mindsets are often still stuck in the academic “discuss”, great opportunities are lost in online courses. What we should be trying to achieve online (and what makes an online course exciting) are the real discussions where people need to challenge their own perceptions while listening (aka reading) other people’s approaches to real-life problems.

      Your suggestion on how to organise a forum around an academic “discuss” question will probably work. The main problem to me remains: where is the real “discussion” and all the skills required for collaborative problem-solving? Often “discussion” forums pretend to be collaborative but aren’t really – they are just add-ons to a content-focused course. There isn’t really a reason why people would post their submission in a space like a forum (you suggest to make it optional), so why would they bother? No wonder so many forums remain un-used and un-inspiring in these online courses. Yet, when these are transformed into real opportunities for meaningful collaboration, people contribute happily.

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