The Most Successful Online Discussion Board — a Case Study

This post outlines how Professor Tom Ward in the School of Education used a discussion board activity with a midterm project to facilitate critical thinking, peer coaching, and the authentic application of conceptual knowledge in a doctoral level Advanced Statistics course.

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Wastelands Versus Organic Gardens

I don’t think anyone else in the class had experienced a discussion board like this before.

At the beginning of the semester, John posted about the difficulties of cultivating robust discussion board conversations. I’ll admit that I’ve experienced a few failed attempts at facilitating extension discussion board activities that were intended to supplement a face-to-face seminar. (Using John’s metaphor, I’d hoped for an Organic Garden, but ended up with a Wasteland). I’ve had much more luck cultivating robust online discussions in fully online courses.

Recently, I had a casual discussion with Julie Marsh, a PhD student in Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership. We were chatting about the (mis)use of discussion boards (you know, the kind that students feel like they have to post to in order to get the credit, but not because they are necessarily engaged in the topic) when Julie said, “Dr. Ward had the best discussion board activity I’ve seen so far as a student at William & Mary.”  I said, “Oh really?  Tell me more.”

The Assignment

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Listen to excerpts from my interview with Julie Marsh

Dr. Ward assigned a take home midterm project to students in Advanced Statistics. Here are the basic guidelines:

  • Students had a two-week window in which to work on the project.
  • Students were allowed to use their notes and course materials as they worked through the selection and application of statistical tests.
  • Students were not allowed to directly collaborate with one another individually; however, they were encouraged to use the discussion board area as an additional resource.

So, if students had questions as they worked through the project, they could pose their question to the class in the discussion board area. Students could then weigh in with their own thoughts and interpretations for the posted questions. Professor Ward allowed students to answer each other, and would then intervene to either let them know that they were on the right track, or to redirect their thinking. “He didn’t let us get off track; he didn’t let anybody give a wrong answer.”

Professor Ward did set up some rules in order to make sure that students who were not engaged didn’t just sit back to take advantage of their classmates’ discussions. He indicated from the beginning that each new thread would eventually become unavailable (invisible) after the question was answered or redirected. This provided students with an incentive for keeping track of the discussion and for engaging with each other when new questions were posted. However, because students were so actively participating on the discussion board, he changed his mind and decided to lock each thread rather than making them disappear. Locking a thread prevents students from adding additional replies to a question, but allows students to read the discussion. A locked thread was a visual indicator that there is sufficient discussion for this question, and enough redirection for help.

The Result

When students reconvened after spring break, they all agreed that this was a successful and helpful instructional use of the Blackboard discussion board area. While Professor Ward intervened to confirm or redirect students replies, the discussion board was largely student directed.  The result was that students were immersing themselves in the content and sharing their expertise with one another: “Once you can teach something to someone else, you get it,” says Julie. Connecting a project based midterm with the student-directed discussion board area also promoted learning by doing, or the active application of knowledge. “The information that I had been learning up until that point really started to gel; it really came together for us by going through the project.”

Although the project was a heavily weighted assessment, the discussion board resource alleviated test anxiety for some by taking “the pressure off so we could focus on what we were actually supposed to be doing.” And perhaps the most valuable aspect of Dr. Ward’s discussion board strategy was that it mimicked real life, or “authentic engagement.” Students were able to approach a doctoral level assessment using strategies that they will encounter in the field.

This is what we would do in the real world.  For our dissertation we would go and ask an expert what test we should use and how to run this test….We would do something as opposed to trying to be assessed in a vacuum.

blackboard_featured_imageHow are you using discussion boards in your content area?  What have you learned from your successes and failures along the way?  Let us know!  Faculty who are interested in exploring some of the functions of the discussion board area, and other collaborative Blackboard tools, may find the Getting Started With Interactive Tools tutorials helpful.

About April Lawrence

April Lawrence is the Academic Technologist for the School of Education. A high school English teacher for ten years, April also worked in online course design and development before joining the AIS staff. April is a doctoral candidate in Educational Policy, Planning & Leadership at William & Mary. Her research interests include exploring the intersections of culture, technology integration, and learning.