When discussions become online discussion boards
There you were, in your small discussion-based class or recitation section, sitting with fellow students in a classroom each week. You were bringing up questions, discussing and working through problems, debating opposing views on a topic – in short, exchanging ideas in any way that suits your course. Whether you participated frequently, spoke occasionally, or mostly listened and took notes, you were having a real-time experience with fellow students, guided by a professor or TA with expertise in the subject.
Full stop, COVID-19 style. All of a sudden, a worldwide pandemic has thrown the higher education community into a fully online learning world, one that is somewhat familiar to students who have taken one or more hybrid or online courses, but completely new to others. What does this mean for your small discussion-based classes and recitations? In many cases, your real-time discussions have undergone a transformation: They have become discussion boards on Canvas or Sakai.
As an academic coach in the Learning Centers, I’m having (virtual) conversations with many students who are finding this unexpected shift to be – well – annoying to say the least, and potentially highly frustrating. First, let me say, I hear you. Second, though, it’s our reality – there’s nothing any of us can do about it right now. Following the principle of “control what you can, cope with what you cannot,” we need to find ways to cope with this one.
Let’s look at the pros and cons of discussion boards. First the challenges, and they are real:
- No real-time verbal discussions. Conversations in real time have more potential to flow naturally in a way that a discussion board back-and-forth exchange cannot.
- No face-to-face interaction. Along with the inability to hear and respond to people in real time, students also can no longer factor in facial expression and body language when taking in communication and responding.
- Potentially more time-consuming. For many students, communicating on a discussion board takes more time than it would to be in class. Because it is writing instead of talking, students tend to think more before posting. Also, some professors may require a series of posts that need to be made over the course of the week, which adds to the time commitment.
- Possibly more work. If you find writing challenging, you may have to put more work into a discussion board response than you would if you were speaking. Also, the requirements for posting may add to the workload, such as when a professor requires a student to make a certain number of original posts as well as responses to other students’ posts.
However, there are some benefits to communicating via discussion board! Consider these:
- More time to think through your answers. On a discussion board, you have plenty of time to work out an effective response as long as you make the deadline, and you are free to rework your thoughts as many times as you need until you are satisfied enough to post them. This is especially helpful to students who aren’t comfortable quickly formulating a response to share verbally in class.
- More freedom to choose when to participate. Did your in-person class meet too early, too late, or right during your mid-afternoon low-energy time? Problem solved! As long as you adhere to deadlines, you can post at a time of day when your brain is most alert.
- Higher rate of participation. Generally, not every student participates verbally in the classroom, even if participating is part of the grade. However, on a discussion board, everyone is required to participate, which can strengthen the community and broaden the range of ideas and responses.
- Potentially greater learning. Ah yes – that learning thing – the ultimate goal of college! Sure, making thoughtful, numerous posts on a discussion board, to your instructor’s questions as well as to your classmates’ answers, may take time and effort. But more time and effort spent thinking about the content is likely to mean deeper understanding and more effective learning (with the potential consequence of better grades).
Finally, a few tips for success as you navigate your discussion boards through the rest of this semester:
- Know what is required. Check e-mails and your Canvas or Sakai page to make sure you know how many posts, and what type, you need to make.
- Schedule your posting deadlines. Pay attention to when you need to post. Professors may set separate deadlines through the week, because when everyone posts in the last two hours of the deadline day, it doesn’t allow students to respond to one another or learn from the conversation. Put each deadline in your schedule or planner.
- Know what discussion boards are worth. Some professors are using discussion boards as participation points, and others are adjusting the grading plan to accommodate for the new task of posting. Get clear on what your work is worth to your grade, and what the consequences are if you miss posting deadlines.
- Read through discussion boards. Right now, most of us have a little extra time on our hands – and you never know what insights you may gain from taking time to explore the discussion. You may want to schedule a time each week to read the boards, perhaps on the last day that postings are due.
- Communicate your questions. There are no stupid questions, especially right now. If anything is unclear, ask for clarification.
Good luck, and good posting!
Sarah Kravits, Academic Coach, Spring 2020