Top ten tips for Discussion Boards
Discussion Boards: everything you’ve ever wanted to know and more!
Getting students to engage and interact with one another is not always easy when they are sitting together in a room. So how about when they are sitting at home, in front of their computers? This is, of course, one of the biggest problems we have when looking at distance learning courses. In this blog post, we’re going to take a little look at the theory behind using discussion boards and also suggest some ways to get your students using them.
The power of dialogue and discourse has been well documented over the years. Let’s name check but a few people to begin with. Vygotsky rattled on about the use of discussion to promote social constructivism. Freire reckoned that dialogue in the classroom was one of the best ways to get students excited about learning new stuff. Piaget believed that a good argument was a great way to get students thinking and learning. Salmon reckons that online communication is fantastic for those students who are shy in class but have so much to offer. Vonderwell insists that discussion boards build community spirit for not only distance learners but regular students as well.
So it looks like online interaction is the way to go when it comes to distance learning. By giving the students a forum in which they can voice their opinion, discuss common themes (possibly non-related to the actual course), construct arguments and negotiate meaning with each other we are allowing them to develop higher learning skills. We’re also providing them with a platform where they can ask for help from not only the staff but also from each other, pushing forward Freire’s ideas about student centred learning.
Getting the theory into practise is not always easy. Students can be slow to use discussion boards and it’s common to see a discussion board barren and empty, likened by one lecturer to a Ghost Town. We’re going to look at some ways in which you make your discussion board a hive of activity. These activities are not exhaustive and might not work but hopefully, with a bit of hard work and imagination, you can have your students merrily discussing electronically! Without further ado, here are ten suggestions for getting the discussion boards alive with activity.
- Plenty of instructions never go amiss. The E-learning team have plenty of videos and help sheets to give people the help they need. Reports have shown that an almost didactic approach to using discussion boards really helps when students are beginning to use the boards. Clear and simple instructions are very beneficial in the first instance.
- Opening activities should be simple and informal to build confidence and trust. A good opener is some form of Ice Breaker to get students communicating. In line with point 1, instructions should be very clear. Rather than “Use the discussion board to introduce yourself” maybe something more precise is appropriate. For example “Open up the discussion board and look at the forum labelled Introductions. Create a new thread and post an introductory article about yourself. Try attaching a picture of yourself. Have a read of other student’s introductions and try to find something that you have in common with another student”.
- Pre-populate the discussion board. Most students don’t like to be the first one to say anything. Why not post a thread yourself? We talked about posting Introductions as a great way to get students using the discussion board. Get the ball rolling by posting something about yourself.
- Reports have shown that a group of 15 students is the optimum to getting the discussion board to work. Try and create groups of 10 to 20 students if possible. If the number of students is too small it might be difficult to keep the conversation going. If there are too many, things might get too confusing which in turn might put your students off.
- Attempt to get the students to support themselves. Peer support accounts for some of the biggest use of discussion boards. If students post a question, instead of answering it yourself, why not open it up to the others?
- Even in the most successful cases of using discussion boards, reports have shown that many students tend to post their own threads and not reply (or engage in interactive thinking as Salmon puts it) with others. One solution to this is to allocate roles to students and get them to role-play. That is, one student becomes the devil’s advocate; another student becomes the diplomat, and so on.
- Consider the use of subscriptions in the discussion board. This can allow students to get an email as soon as someone replies to a forum. The system of getting emails is similar to those in popular social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. Students already familiar with these sites might appreciate a similar functionality.
- Think about the connection between the activity and the perceived benefits to the student. Why should they use the discussion board? What’s in it for them? For example, an activity in Introductions can allow them to build up support networks. The benefits include giving them access to other people to talk to when they have a problem, or maybe even someone to chat to who likes the same music.
- You could always force students to contribute to the board by making it part of the assessment process. You might want to think about how to mark participation with the board, or maybe even get the students to draw up the guidelines for what they think is meaningful engagement with the discussion board.
- Don’t expect overnight success! A discussion board can take some time to get going. Students might not have used them before so there’s a learning curve to be anticipated. Some students might not trust the medium so there’s an issue of trust to be built up.
The above ten suggestions are all based on reports and actual findings based in Higher Education. A lot will depend on your students so don’t expect a discussion board to work in every instance. However, it has been shown that a lot of students get a lot out of using a discussion board. A frequent comment is about how they felt that they got to know their fellow students a lot more through the discussion board and the build up of peer support was one of the things that they would take away with them when they finished the course.
Feel free to contact the E-learning team with anything to do with Discussion Boards. If you’d like help in setting them up, we’re on hand to help you. If you would like to share your stories – both success and failure, we’d also love to hear from you!
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