I think it’s fair to say that many Drexel students will agree with me when I say that discussion boards are among the least interesting methods of learning a subject. They aren’t completely useless though, in fact, I’ve had extremely interesting discussion boards that left me feeling as though I actually learned something valuable while talking to my peers.
But this honestly just adds to the level of animosity that I have toward discussion boards. They have the potential to be a catalyst for interesting conversation that challenges us as students to think critically about whatever subject matter we are discussing. However, the execution of discussion boards often tends to be extremely dry and uninspired.
The main reason why this is the case is because the initial question that is presented is a question that just requires a response. The question generally doesn’t require any significant judgement calls or critical thinking on the part of the student, which leads to us not really investing ourselves in answering the question. The ripple effect of this is that we also won’t care about what our peers have to say about the initial question, so our responses to our peers are also lackluster.
While sometimes this is our fault as students for just not trying to engage ourselves with the material, most of the time I find it to be the environment in which we are interacting with the material. In the face-to-face class environment, it’s much easier to engage in a discussion that is both meaningful in terms of how it feels, as well as what is produced from the discussion.
And to be quite honest, it’s easier to listen to something or someone than it is read something, so I find it only logical to assume that the method which involves the reading would be more difficult to dive into. This also applies to books and movies. A huge portion of the world’s population still reads only a minimal amount every day, but the number of people that read books for pleasure like Lord of The Rings, The Hunger Games, and Harry Potter, has decreased over time. Movies are a much more popular and are easier form of media to interact with than books.
The majority of the time, discussion boards don’t serve the purpose that they are originally intended for, which is to facilitate peer learning and create a learning environment that students have some control over. If it were up to me, I would just have discussion boards done away with entirely, but I realize that they are a major part of online classes and hybrid courses that only meet once a week. That said, I do have some general ways in which I think they can be improved.
I said before that one of the problems with discussion boards is that the questions are often not interesting enough to the students to provoke a well thought out and insightful response. This is often due to the questions being either too broad or too narrow in terms of the scope of what they are asking the students.
When it’s too broad it leaves students scratching their heads, thinking of where they should start to respond to the question. Students can throw together a low effort response that they probably won’t get anything substantial out of, and more importantly they won’t care. Questions that are nicely balanced between broad and narrow in terms of what they are asking, tend to be the ones that I find myself most willing to engage with on a level where I’m not just doing it to get points for the assignment.
Another thing that more professors could be doing with their discussion boards is increasing the number of questions that they ask. I took Philosophy of Technology last quarter, a hybrid course that met in person one day a week. The structure of the online section of the class was excellent in my opinion as far as how discussion boards tend to be put together.
There were three different threads for each week, and within each thread were at least 10 questions related to the text that we’d read for the week, as well as some questions that came up in class discussion. With around 30 questions to choose from and only needing to write a response that addresses one of them, this was a system that had me and many other people in the class extremely engaged in the online portion of the course.
Not only was it good because of the variety of questions offered to us, but it also made it practically impossible to not be able to participate meaningfully. Even if you didn’t get to do all the dense readings before class, you could still very easily add insightful contributions in the discussion boards if you at least attended class and were part of the discussions.
While there are a number of other ways that discussion boards can be improved in terms of how appealing they are to students, I think that focusing on offering more questions and making sure that those questions are not too complicated or simplistic in terms of what they are asking are good places to start.
I’ll be happy to be finally rid of discussion boards once I graduate, but I do genuinely hope that they improve because I have a feeling that they are probably here to stay. Their ease of use and accessibility can’t be denied, that much I can admit, but I also don’t think it can be denied that they often leave a lot to be desired.