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Re: Effective discussion boards in online education (long messsage)

Posted By: Andrew Topper on August 10, 2003

Please realize that the findings below are tentative, and that I'm still working on plans for how to implement and improve them this year. That said, I've discovered a few things about teaching an online class with regard to helping students participate and (hopefully) learn from them which I will share here.

My perspective is that online courses represent a virtual space for asynchronous discussions - via threaded postings - and as such should be viewed as temporary virtual discourse community. I am looking at the number of postings and the overall quality of the threads with an eye towards increasing the number of multidimensional threads and reducing the ones that go nowhere. In order to accomplish this, I think instructors need to be clear about their expectations for students and encourage (or require) students to respond to postings of other students. I provide detailed guidelines for my students at the beginning of the term and we discuss these in our first f2f class session.

Whether we realize it or not, as instructors, we have an authority in these settings that may need to be balanced by modelling and encouraging student-to-student interaction. As an instructor, we can also model the kind of discourse, and through it, ways of thinking, we want our students to adopt and use. For example, I make a concerted effort to post questions, offer alternative perspectives, play devil's advocate, complexify, etc. in hopes my students might use the same kinds of discursive moves themselves. My claim is that by participating in these discussions, some students will internalize these ways of thinking they experience online and will have "learned" something of value.

A byproduct of this work is that some of my students are beginning to question their own assumptions about teaching and learning based on the online discussions we have. I see this in their journal entries and want to pursue what it might mean in terms of learning in the future.

Some students feel that the online discussions are a more expressive medium than f2f discussions, and I've observed evidence of students questionning attitudes, beliefs & practices in my courses. I think this kind of rich, thoughtful discourse provides students with opportunities to revisit ideas and issues over a long period of time, and that this might lead to more reflection about their own teaching. Not all students will take advantage of this opportunity.

I use regular chat sessions to help build a sense of "community," although I don't like that term because it is so nebulous. But the chat sessions, which are synchronous, allow students to establish social relations in a safe and comfortable environment that is more like a f2f setting. I think this helps when we engage in asynchronous discussion online.

I also use groups to encourage small group discussion and collaboration. I group students based on common interests and some of these groups really engage with the ideas and issues - but some do not : (

I think that online discourse allows some students to connect the ideas in class with their own personal and professional experiences. I encourage this kind of connection and welcome narratives of experiences as a way to enrich our discussions. Again, modeling this kind of discourse (I believe) helps students see the value of their experiences in the context of our work in class.

Sorry to be so long winded, but there's a lot more that I left unsaid. My plan is to submit an article describing these (and related) issues in the next year. Hope these comments are helpful to someone. Take care.

andrew topper
GVSU School of Education
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 Effective discussion boards in online education by Janet Smith on June 24, 2003
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