The Death of Discussion Boards

When I first started at Ohio University in 2004, I taught a class as a live lecture that was also broadcast out to Ohio University Regional campuses.  Although there was a mechanism for students to ask questions using a microphone (that at the time they had to press to activate), I wanted to find a way for students to interact with each other more.  Blackboard was and still is the Learning Management System (LMS) at OU, and I thought the Discussion Board feature had a lot of promise.  I worked to find a reasonable way to grade student work that would encourage active participation and wouldn’t be too onerous for me.  Basically points were assigned based on entries placed on different days, that covered a minimum of posts (5 posts on at least 3 different days), and that demonstrated reading of other posts on some level (at least one post as a reply or a question posed to the group).  This seemed to work ok for the first year.

About a year later, a student asked me a question about the Discussion Board.  She asked me to take a look to be sure she was doing it right.  What I noticed was that she had over 50 unread posts in her forum and was on her last posting.  I concluded that participating in one large group was not going to work and decided with larger classes it made more sense to divide the class into smaller groups.

I expanded my use of this system and even wrote up some findings on my experiences using it with large and small groups in a graduate course on AAC. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12528-010-9031-6

Other iterations included invited vendors and other guest speakers to participate, giving points for posts rated by others as high quality, and having members rotate in their responsibilities for grading the posts of members of their group.

As time went on, what I found was students were expected to participate in more and more online discussion boards and were reporting general fatigue and a lack of enthusiasm for engaging in them.  I too fell victim to this.  My active participation also fell off in the discussions.  Students did not like posting when there wasn’t a response.  When many online outlets are capable of delivering at least a personalized auto-reply, putting work into a discussion board post that apparently no one would actually read did not seem worth while. They also found it odd to engage in a online discussion with students they either saw on a regular basis or had contact with in media outside of discussions.

Students had a basic formula for writing posts on whatever days were expected and with whatever key words the instructor appeared to be looking for.  Basically everyone seemed to “phone it in” which led me to believe that the utility of this particular mechanism was on its way out.

Personally, I think it is time to let this particular mechanism go as I don’t see it actually promoting any kind of meaningful discussion in the class anymore.  I believe we should look for other ways to promote this both in online and other classroom formats.  I will just give an example of one potential direction, but will discuss this topic more in the future.

For about the past year, I have been using Twitter in my classes. As with discussions, assigning points to posts and my active involvement is key.  I also don’t want to force anyone to sign up for a third party social networking site if they don’t want to, so I do give students the option to use the blog tool in Blackboard if they prefer.   I’ll talk more about my use of Twitter in the classroom in another post.

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