Evolving the Online Discussion Board at Wichita State University

Can students interact meaningfully online? It’s a question faculty members and educational leaders are still debating.

But one online educator believes she has found the ways to make it happen.

Dr. Carolyn Speer, Manager of Instructional Design and Access at Wichita State University, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about why she’s doubling down on the power of the online discussion board to facilitate better student-to-student interactions.

The Potential Power of the Online Discussion Board

Start creating your discussion board by remembering how conversations happen in person.

“If I go to a face-to-face class,” Carolyn said, “and I have a discussion topic or a series of topics, I am not going to say, ‘Okay. Brad in the front row there. Here’s the question. Give me 250 words on it. Okay, now. Everybody cover your ears while Brad is talking.”

But faculty members often set up discussion boards like that, and it undermines actual conversation.

Instead, Carolyn sets up a prompt with open-ended answers along with threads within a particular discussion board that have sub-prompts, thus framing out the conversation in advance.

“I am looking for students to advance the discussion,” Carolyn said. “I’m asking for people to reflect critically on the question that I have posed. I feel like when we set particular word counts, we’re counter productive. Instead, just inviting students to come into the room with a reflective mind, a reflective attitude, that is going to get us our best result. I have good responses in that situation.”

Online Discussion Board Best Practices

How can an instructor use a discussion board facilitate meaningful student-to-student interaction?

“Set interim due dates,” Carolyn said.

So if your discussion board is open for seven days, setting the first due date within the first couple of days and the next a few days later breaks up the cluster. This approach helps get people interacting across a period of time, which means they’re actually reading other people’s postings.

“I also think that instructors need to be extremely careful in the kind of feedback that they give,” Carolyn told us. If you organize the discussion board with truncated topics like you would discussion groups in a face-to-face class, then it’s easy to go in as an instructor and make general comments in those smaller topic areas.

In an in-person class, if an instructor attempts to push a learner to think more critically, that has a set of social dynamics that sometimes are harder to mimic online where it’s easier to offend and upset people.

“Instructors need to be very careful about that,” Carolyn said. “I often teach an American Federal Government class online. Let’s think about the kinds of comments you get, and why it is that people think that it’s appropriate to say, ‘You’re stupid,’ or ‘That is dumb,’ and ‘Leave the country.”

The social conditioning in online environments is different from the one that we would get if everybody was forced to sit next to each other at a time of day when they’re not exhausted. Online students, though, could easily have come home from work, dealt with their kids, and had a beer. They’re in their pajamas in a room all by themselves. None of the social cuing that would be in an in-person class is going to be available to them.

“If you really do draw out your students and get them talking reflectively and seriously about a topic,” Carolyn said, “you are also going to put yourself in the way of more opportunities for them to be hostile, and that needs to be watched really closely.”

Technology Should Improve Student-to-Student Communication

As computers get better at doing what they do, it will open up more opportunities for people to do what people do best — be fully human.

The most important technological innovation that we have,” Carolyn said, “is the opportunity for human beings to really show up as humans. That we’re not exhausted by all of the other things that we have to do.”

Going into a discussion board, interacting with students, and being reflective about their ideas are tasks only humans can do well. They aren’t something a technology solution is ever going to exist for.

“But we’ll have more time to do that,” Carolyn told us, “because technology is lifting so many other loads off of our shoulders as instructors.”

Next-Steps Advice for Maximizing the Value of Your Online Discussion Board

Keep trying things, Carolyn suggests. Don’t be defined by a semester where you felt off, or like a failure, or like something didn’t work.

“That’s a thing that you don’t have do again,” Carolyn said, “but that doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to innovate.”

We’re all going to get better at this as we go along, so continue to engage with your students. And experiment.

This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Carolyn Speer from Wichita State University. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.