Course Redesign, eLearning, Instructional Design

Discussion Boards: A Place Where Open-ended Questions Go to Die

graphic by Giulia Forsythe

graphic by Giulia Forsythe

Discussion boards are a critical tool for online learning environments. Often times, they are the only tool that faculty use to facilitate student-student interaction, and even faculty-student interactions. In asynchronous courses especially, this tools plays a significant role in building a sense of community.

Unfortunately, more often than not, discussion boards, or blogs, fall short of engaging students in the kind of interaction they would experience in a face-to-face setting. Not because it’s not possible, but because the discussion prompts are boring or poorly designed.

In order for online course discussion boards to be successful, a few factors come into play:  1) the question prompt is ho-hum (a regurgitation of the readings), 2) the willingness of the student to participate and connect with others through the discussion board 3) the discussion timeline. If any of these factors are amiss, student participation may seem rather drab.

So, this back to school season, revise your plan for discussion prompts. Think well beyond open-ended questions.  Purposefully design discussion assignments with the learner experience at the center and as a result you, and your students, will experience the benefits of a growing course community.

Here are some ways to do that:

  • Challenge your students to do something new, as Jill Rooney suggests: require students to respond to a prompt about the material from a different point of view – a character in the story, the author, an onlooker, etc.
  • Ask them to argue the opposite side, as is done in debate courses. You may even consider dividing the students into groups (or teams) representing either side of the debated topic.
  • Could you incorporate a game into the discussion board assignment? For example, Rooney also suggests designing a “telephone” style discussion board prompt that enables students to add-on the storyboard of another student.
  • Use a real life scenario from the news and ask students to apply course concepts to the real life scenario.
  • For courses that involved projects, require peer critiques. This will force student-student interaction that both engages critical thinking skills and fosters personal relationships among students.
  • For a more advanced course, consider making students a part of the discussion board prompt. On a rotating basis, designate a student facilitator who is charged with leading the discussion that week. Dr. Sarah Eaton has shared a very helpful 1-page document on tips for facilitating online discussions.

Finally, to help build community further, consider designing social presence activities as well as curriculum/learning focused activities. Give students an opportunity to interact with each other without the formal framework of an assignment. Allow them to get to know each other and you. FacultyFocus’ article, “Tips for Building Social Presence in Your Online Class” is a good place to start.

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eLearning, Instructional Design, student perspective

Why I Hated THIS Online Class and Not THAT One.

Before I started working in instructional design, I was an online student. In my work now, I often draw upon my online learning experiences when working with instructors to build and design their courses.

Over the span of my academic career, I have taken nearly a dozen courses online. As an adult, I chose online courses over face-to-face courses because of the demands for my time – professional and personal. Online learning provided me the ability to “do it all” and I was grateful for it. I still take courses online – and for the same reasons.

However, there are stark differences between the online classes I enjoy and the classes I can’t wait to end. Here are the reasons why:

      1. Rules of the Road. As a student, I want to be told what is expected of me right away. Give me an overview of the expectations for the course and, if you want, establish weekly benchmarks, but please establish the ‘rules of the road’ immediately. Although I am a working adult and manage a busy schedule, I also expect to be able to be successful in class. Confusion and lack of communication makes it impossible to succeed. If I do not know the ‘rules of road,’ I cannot follow them. For example, I had a professor who was “trying out” a new grading system. By mid-semester, he hadn’t yet informed us about the grading system or shared with us any feedback about our work. When I inquired about my performance, I was told: “Don’t worry. If you were in jeopardy, I would have reached out to you by now.” As hard as it is to believe, this is a true story. In fact, this was my first online class ever. Lucky, I tried another online class after that mess.
      2. Too little too late. Feedback is a critical element in the learning process. Only then can a student attempt to do better on assignments in the future. For example, I received feedback from a video professor two weeks after a project was turned in. However, in the time it took to receive feedback in those two weeks, I had turned in two completed video assignments and had completed shooting a third. The feedback I received indicated that I should shoot from a different angle. This meant that the two assignments I had already turned in were going to be downgraded because I didn’t receive the professors critique soon enough to be able to incorporate it into my work and the third project would have to be reshot.
      3. Me, Myself, and I. Online coursework and independent study are not the same. The most engaging, interesting and enjoyable courses have carefully constructed interactions between students as a part of curriculum activities. For me, isolation isn’t an effective learning tool. Students learn from other students online too! Courses should require student-student interaction and student-faculty interaction – frequently.
      4. Give me something to talk about. On the other hand, I’ve been in courses where there are a lot of “discussion board” assignments that don’t require peer interaction and the discussion questions are ho-hum. This doesn’t count as student engagement. Interaction should be thoughtfully designed by the professor and thought provoking for the student. Unfortunately, I have had several professors who use the discussion assignments to check to see if we did the reading. This is called busy work, even online. The discussion questions should incorporate the reading, but challenge students to think critically too.
      5. I don’t own a crystal ball. One of my biggest pet peeves as an online student is when a professor doesn’t use the correct terminology for course tools or activities. It is confusing and frustrating to have to try to decipher what the professor means, rather than taking his/her word. For example, I had a professor who used the term “blog” and “wiki” interchangeably. However, these are different tools – not the same thing.

It takes a great deal of energy and effort to build an online course that is interesting and engaging. So, pay careful attention to these types of elements that greatly impact the learner experience as you ready online courses for the fall semester.

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eLearning, Instructional Design

Not Quite Flipped

We are hearing a lot about “flipped classrooms” these days. Often times, when I begin working with instructors to create or develop their first online course, they very quickly assimilate the two: flipped classroom teaching and teaching online.

There are similarities for certain: technology is used as a tool to disseminate information, multimedia and simulations are viewed “at home” to help to develop conceptual understanding, etc. However, the instructor invariably feels “stuck” when the next part of flipped teaching arrives: engaging students in classroom discussions and activities.

The good news is that for those who have never taught online, the flipped classroom is a very comfortable “jumping off point.” The instructor as facilitator is something online and flipped have in common. The shift in approach and the types of activities are different. In fact, way you design these activities should be framed or structured differently, taking into account your audience (adult learning, working professionals, high school students, etc.), synchronous or asynchronous course environments as well as other limitations and opportunities.

When designing online discussion board assignments consider the prompt carefully. You will not have the opportunity to revise it, if students “don’t get it.” In an online classroom blank stares are to computer screens. You will never see them.

Also, don’t rule out group work – papers, projects or presentations require student collaboration and engagement with the material. There is no doubt that many students, online or in a traditional classroom, will dread working in groups, but it is an effective tool.

You may combine the group concept with a discussion board assignment too. Perhaps require that the students suggest that week’s discussion topic – requiring their engagement upfront – then designate a host for the discussion, requiring the students to intimately interact with the material and lead their fellow classmates in a discussion. All the while, you can facilitate the conversation and the pathway for engagement.

Today, An Ethical Island posted an interesting infographic about the flipped teaching for the online environment, check it out!

Infographic from An Ethical Island blog post, “Flipping Online- Maintaining the In-Class Feel” (http://anethicalisland.wordpress.com/2013/07/19/flipping-online-maintaining-the-in-class-feel/)

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