Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Using Online Discussion Boards

A long time ago, Bardiac asked me to post about how I use discussion boards in some of my classes, and so I figured today is as good a time as any, as I've just finished reading my students' weekly posts. Before I get into the whys and hows of it, though, let me give you an idea of context. I only use the online discussion board in my upper-division courses (and as I only teach one of those per semester, that means that I only use them in one course per semester). Part of this is because I feel like it is a substantial obligation for students to fulfill, and part of it is because I can't handle keeping track of more than one class doing this.

1. Why is it useful to use an online discussion board?
Well, where to begin? I suppose the first thing I'd say is that I like that students are forced to write about pretty much every text in the class. While my department does not have an upper-level writing intensive requirement, I run my upper-level courses as writing intensive courses. To me, writing about literature is crucial to our understanding of it, and by the time that students are in an upper level class, they should be committed to learning how to become literary critics. Quizzes are not going to turn them into critics, and I don't want to take class time to have them writing at length in there. Thus, the online discussion board is a good way to get students writing (and thus thinking in an analytical way) about the texts of the course.

Next, the weekly posts that they do on the discussion board constitute an "in-between" writing step in terms of formality. The least formal writing that students do in my course is to hand in an index card each class period with jotted down ideas/questions about the reading for that day. Next, comes the slightly more formal responses on the online discussion board. I do not evaluate either of these kinds of writing for grammar or punctuation, nor is their grade lowered for them getting something wrong. Rather, they get credit just for doing the assignment. (This also makes my life easier because I just have to check off that they've posted by the deadline each week in order to tabulate their grade.) Next, I have students complete four short analysis/response papers - one for each unit. These are obviously more formal, though they do not require any research component. Next come student presentations (with a small research component) and then finally a research paper. By building the assignments in the course in this way, students get a range of writing and critical experiences that each tie into the other, which I think is a good way to demystify the process of literary analysis for them.

It's useful to use the discussion board because it allows people who might be more quiet in class a forum in which to contribute to the discussion of the texts of the course. This is especially useful in smaller classes where group work seems weird to do. (In my larger lower-level classes, I tend to rely on group work to tackle this shy-people-need-to-participate-too problem.)

Finally, it's also useful for me as an instructor, because the responses on the discussion board show me what students are getting in class and what I need to spend more time on. A lot of the time, it's less easy to glean this information from conventional class discussion.

2. How can I make an online discussion board work?
I first tried to use one of these a few years ago, and it was not an altogether successful experiment. What can go wrong? 1) Students don't write anything of substance each week; 2) Students don't engage with other students' comments; 3) It's a pain in the ass to grade the posts.

I've already addressed how I've handled the grading issue, which is to grade the students on completing the assignment and not trying to grade for quality. That said, it is not worth having students do the discussion board assignment if they do not post in substantive ways and if they do not engage with one another. So what I learned is that I had to give students a prompt for each week. A specific prompt that asks for specific questions. It is not enough, I learned, to ask them to "respond" to the reading for that week or to what is happening in class. Rather, I come up with what basically amounts to 12 or 13 paper topics, and these serve as the prompts for their responses. Yes, this is a lot of work on the front end. BUT it's worth it. Why? Well, first of all, students have a clear idea of the sorts of things I expect them to think about when they read each assignment (they get the prompts on the first day of class) and so the in-class discussion tends to be stronger. Second, the prompts give students an idea of the sorts of issues that are appropriate to explore in their critical writing, so when I ask them to develop their own topics for the more formal writing assignments in the class, they have a little bit of help in determining what constitutes a solid topic. Third, and perhaps this is most important, the prompts help students respond to the discussion board as a "real" assignment - not just busy-work.

Getting the students to engage with the comments of other students is still a struggle for me, but I try to model this by responding to at least one person's comment per week, or to respond by bringing together multiple comments in my response. I also try to encourage students to respond to each other by praising those who do this. This is the one aspect of using the discussion board that is most frustrating for me, but I think it's also a particular problem for me because so many of my students work and so are very regimented in the way that they choose to do their assignments - they are not checking the discussion board multiple times, but rather they alot themselves 15 minutes (or whatever) to do their post and that's it. I've decided not to beat myself up over this. I'm just happy they're writing about everything that we're reading in the semester.

So what are your experiences with using discussion boards? How do you use them? I'd love to hear what other people do with this medium.


Melissa said...

I'm currently in an online writing class. For our discussion board assignments, we are required to post once independently, and post three times (for example) in response to classmates' postings.

Sarah said...

Great post! I agree that "low stakes" writing is really important to get the process going and just to get students comfortable with words. The notion of writing can be intimidating, and making it a daily activity can remove some of that anxiety. I have also had a similar experience with requiring "responses" to readings--students seem almost overwhelmed by the options available to them. They want something more specific. I have tried many times to assign open responses to literature, without much success, and a prompt seems to be the right springboard for getting them to think and write. But I would still love to just see what they thought about the readings without my directions, which I always fear determine their responses too much.

hypatia said...

I use discussion board in research seminars and one thing I did as an offhand way to make up missed class time was require students to respond to at least two posts by other students before class (we missed an hour out of a two hour class due to some important conflict). It worked well enough that I'm inclined to build that in as a regular requirement in the future.

BikeProf said...

Good question! I use dbs in all of my classes, but they way I use them depends on whether it's a writing class or a lit class, upper division or core. For my majors-only lit class, I have the students respond before every class. Sometimes I ask specific questions, sometimes I ask them to ask questions, and sometimes I am very vague and ask them to post they want about the texts. I use the db to facilitate in-class discussion. I don't grade it, but I tell the students that not participating will end up hurting their grade. Writing a lot will help if I need a tie breaker when figuring the grade (C+ to B-, say). I read the comments before class and praise the students lavishly who say something interesting, especially if it's a student who is shy about talking. This way the shy ones can still participate in discussion.

Wiccachicky said...

I have had very little success with discussion boards - I keep thinking about how to make them work better, but haven't yet. My problem is that simply "doing" something is not enough for me, pedagogically, so there must be some kind of rating system so that students who simply post things don't just get A's. I'm working on a rubric for responses that will hopefully work in an upper-level course I'm teaching in the spring.

Dr. Crazy said...

I see what you're saying Wiccachicky, and I think I felt the same way about them originally, but what I've found is that by providing a prompt, the students give substantive enough answers that I feel ok with it being what amounts to p/f for completion. The problem for me with having a rubric is that it ultimately makes more work for me, and I'm not sure it really increases their experience enough to warrant that work. I should say, though, that I also have difficulty with using a rubric to evaluate class participation, in part because if the discussion is really going well I forget to note who has a "really great" comment and who is just babbling. For me, I like having "discussion" types of assignments - whether in writing online or whether in class - to be a bit more free for students to make mistakes. That's not to say that I don't respond to them and comment on the quality of their comments - I do - but to obligate myself to connect those responses to their course grade feels a bit stifling to me. I'm wondering if anybody else out there has had success with using rubrics for these things? It may just be a difference in style/expectations for what these discussion boards should be?

phd me said...

I'm teaching an on-line course this semester (inherited from another prof) so discussion is obviously important. I'm having so much trouble getting the students to really engage, though.

I create multi-part prompts each week. I take a limited role in discussion, extending points made, asking questions, that sort of thing - don't see a difference in responses when I do and when I don't. I have a rubric that incorporates quality and quantity of the posts that came from the other prof, and the students know exactly what's required of them. Still, I'm not really satisfied with what I'm getting.

Then again, there are five people in the class: an undergrad, a working professional (she's great); a non-traditional student; a grad student; and an international grad student who struggles with the colloquial format of discussion on the boards. I may have just figured out my problem...

coyotelibrarian said...

A couple of rubrics for grading online discussion: