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Participation in a discussion board is among the most common assignments in online courses. We typically ask our students to respond to a reading or a prompt and then reply to several of their classmates.

But most instructors would likely agree: discussion boards are among the least valuable aspects of online classes and among the most difficult assignments to track and grade, if only because of the large number of posts to read and evaluate.

Sure, discussion boards can increase class participation and ensure that everyone, even the shiest and most introverted students, voices their opinions. Class discussion boards rarely experience the kinds of flame wars or harassment or personal attacks that occur all too frequently on social media.

Quantity and readability, however, aren’t the only problems. Conversations are often insipid. Lively, substantive online discussions are as rare as hen’s teeth. Noise -- comments that digress off-topic -- and repetition are common. Discussion boards only rarely promote genuine exchange of ideas or the sophisticated interchange of opinions.

We don’t simply want our students to respond to a question, but, rather to engage with the course material and take part in a genuine dialogue -- something that is more common with a platform like Slack than with an LMS.

Why do we so seldom see articulate, thoughtful, well-informed and substantive interaction on discussion boards? The quality pales even compared to the comments in response to newspaper articles or reviews.

Partly this is due to a lack of quality control. Meaningful participation in a discussion requires guidance, scaffolding and instructor feedback. But online discussion boards are usually unmoderated. They function on their own, free from much instructor engagement.

Then, too, there is the make-work nature of the assignment. Students must contribute to the discussion board whether or not they have something significant to add.

Then there is the fact that most students haven’t been taught how to participate in a meaningful digital conversation. That requires acknowledging what others have said, building on prior comments and bringing in relevant evidence and perspectives.

But a bigger problem lies in the way the discussion is presented visually. Threads and conversations are difficult to follow. Themes and arguments are buried. Summaries are absent.

Can we do better? Absolutely.

Online classes need spaces where students can interact and hold discussions. Chat rooms, discussion forums and hangouts can be valuable -- but only if we reimagine how they are used and how they work.

Strategy 1: Provide Better Prompts

Avoid opinion questions. Personal opinions -- ungrounded in evidence or theory -- are unlikely to contribute to a meaningful discussion. Ditto for factual, wholly open-ended, leading or loaded questions.

Questions need to be designed to elicit constructive contributions that are helpful, informative and grounded in something more than a knee-jerk opinion.

So what are better kinds of prompts? Those that involve higher-order thinking skills and require the students to apply, analyze, compare and contrast, critique, evaluate, explain, infer, predict, propose, solve, and synthesize -- to apply information to a new context, identify patterns, draw conclusions, uncover hidden meanings, assess the value of various theories, design an experiment or prove or disprove a hypothesis.

Here are some examples.

  • Problem questions: Ask students to draw upon course materials to address a problem.
  • Causal questions: Ask students to identify and weigh the variables that contribute to an effect or outcome.
  • Connective questions: Ask students to contextualize or historicize an issue.
  • Comparison questions: Ask students to compare and contrast a theory or approach.
  • Evaluation questions: Ask students to evaluate the relative value of a particular argument.

Strategy 2: Ask Students to Do Something

An asynchronous online format does not easily facilitate sustained, quality conversations. Not only are the gaps too long and unpredictable, but students aren’t generally familiar with the strategies that can make asynchronous conversations meaningful, like recapping, in their own words, what someone else said, and raising questions of their own that invite others to respond.

An alternative is to ask your students to do something: solve a problem, analyze a case study, take part in a debate, adopt a role or relate the topic to a current event.

Strategy 3: Raise the Stakes

One way that newspapers and magazines and companies like Amazon try to improve the quality of reader or user comments is by asking their audience to rate the value of individual posts. Nothing, I have found, focuses the online student’s mind better than a sense that their writing is being evaluated anonymously by their classmates. Consider asking for specific feedback: ask your students to rate a post as substantive, provocative or grounded in evidence.

Another way to raise the stakes is to limit the number of students who participate in each discussion. The rest of the class might then provide feedback not on individual postings but the discussion as a whole.

Strategy 4: Reimagine How Online Conversations Are Displayed

Why can’t conversations be displayed more along the lines of the old TV show Hollywood Squares or like a network analysis or in some other visual format, for example, in parallel columns?

Online comments are typically displayed in one of two ways: flat, in which all posts are presented in chronological order, or threaded, in which individuals respond to particular message and then the replies appear next to that “parent” message.

Each approach has its distinctive strengths and weaknesses. The flat approach works best when the number of posts is relatively small and one can easily read all of the contributions. Flat conversations, however, work poorly when there is a large number of posts or when multiple topics are covered. Nor does the flat approach offer an easy way to respond to a particular post or to easily follow a conversation among multiple people.

The alternative, threaded conversations, consists of indented or nested comments. Although this organizes conversations by topic, it can be very distracting and difficult to read.

One solution to this challenge is to truncate or abbreviate the replies and simply show snippets. Then readers can click on those that they are interested in reading in full.

There have been a few attempts to adopt other modes of display. Amazon offers orders posts according to user ratings or recommendations. The New York Times creates a category of posts that its editors recommend.

Another approach adopts the metaphor of a tree with branches. Users title their posts to suggest how they are altering the conversation, then replies are grouped together.

But we may want to go further by helping students better visualize the discussion. We might display networks of comments or use word clouds to underscore the key issues that have arisen.

Or we might assign particular students to summarize the conversation and identify key points of debate and disagreement.

Strategy 5: Adopt a Different Model

Perhaps it’s a mistake to transpose a mode of communication that works well in face-to-face, synchronous or one-on-one contexts into the asynchronous realm. There are other ways to create a sense of community, promote collaboration and elicit meaningful ideas and debate.

One obvious model is to ask the students to annotate portions of a text, an image or a case study. By placing the interaction immediately adjacent to the course content, students directly interact with the class’s learning materials.

Another approach is to have teams of students work together on a collaborative document, a blog or a wiki.

Yet another is to create a collaborative community forum (like the University of Toronto’s Knowledge Forum) where students can informally share ideas, discuss the readings, raise questions and offer explanations.

If an online class is to be more than a correspondence course, interaction among classmates is essential. But if we are to make asynchronous online learning into a truly social process, we need to break free from the traditional discussion board and imagine new ways to promote dialogue, information and opinion sharing, and collaborative inquiry.

Steven Mintz is senior adviser to the president of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.

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