Remote Teaching Roundup: Discussion Boards

I’ll confess: I’m pretty bad at the whole asynchronous online teaching thing. Although my classes are nominally asynchronous – I don’t grade anything that we do during or as a result of synchronous online discussions – I have a lot of trouble figuring out how to make learning happen without a discussion, and I have even more trouble getting that discussion to happen in the usual environments that online classes use. So I’ve been doing a bit of reading about online discussions, and some thinking about the problem. Here are some links along with short descriptions, as well as some of my thoughts.

A large chunk of the “how-to” material on using discussion boards tends to focus on tricks to get students to interact using discussion boards. For example, “Five Twists for Online Discussions” has some good ideas along those lines. Tips like these presume that you are setting up discussion boards for your course, and that you are asking questions and monitoring responses: the instructor is in the driver’s seat. This is the model I’ve been using, and seems to be a pretty common one.

A second (and perhaps larger) fraction of the posts on online discussion boards focus on the management of the boards – how and whether to monitor them, how often to post, etc. Of these, I’ve found “The ABCs Οf High Quality Online Discussions” and “Discussion Boards: Valuable? Overused? Discuss.” particularly helpful. Both articles recommend that the instructor not take too active a role in the discussion, but rather work behind the scenes (email, etc.) to encourage all students to participate. The academic literature I’ve read on classroom discussions (most of it about face-to-face) notes the value of student-to-student interactions, and that’s something I’ve had problems getting students to do. Along those lines, “Student-Centered Remote Teaching: Lessons Learned from Online Education” breaks down interactions in a way that’s been helpful for me. Keep in mind that student experiences can vary, and it’s useful to have a plan for how to predict them – I found the papers “Caution, Student Experience May Vary: Social Identities Impact a Student’s Experience in Peer Discussions” by Eddy et al. and “Creating effective student engagement in online courses: What do students find engaging?” by Dixson useful in that regard.

Finally, I’ve encountered a few posts and papers specifically about the role of discussions in online courses. In “Bringing out Students’ Best Assets in Remote Teaching: Questioning Reconsidered“, Funmi Amobi considers the instructor-centeredness of the traditional discussion forums, and proposes some ways to give students more control of the discussion. I suspect this might encourage students to value the discussions more (a key point in Eddy’s analysis) and thus to participate in a deeper and more significant way. A recent (paywalled) article in The Teaching Professor, “Solutions to Online Discussion Problems” also focuses on how interactions are integrated into courses. The latter in particular considers the design of questions (Who and what role are the questions serving? Who makes them up?) and how to grade discussions. The idea of group grades for discussions (more deeply discussed in “A Better Way to Assess Discussions“) might be handy.

The design of tools for online discussion also affects how those discussions happen, which isn’t quite the theme of “Student Centered Social Interaction Online” (also paywalled), but is a subtext of it. The article likens LMS discussion boards to “internet forums from the 1990s,” which I think is supposed to be a dig at discussion boards. As someone whose internet experience is rooted in the 90s, I take a bit of offense at this, but I don’t think the point is lost. The discussion boards on Canvas, for example, are severely lacking: although there’s an option for threaded replies (seeing a post and its responses together, and being able to collapse those replies into the post), it’s not selected by default, and it’s clunky to use. Posts are not organized by subject heading (there is no subject heading) and the search/collapse interfaces are unwieldy after a discussion reaches about 60 posts. You can’t access grading tools and the entire thread of a post at the same time, so it’s impossible to grade posts in context (as one might want to do if one assigns grades based on “moving a discussion forward”, as one of the previous links suggests). The tools for organizing posts are present on nearly all modern discussion boards – Stack Exchange, Reddit, Quora, and even support sites such as the Canvas Community are still in common use and contain similar threading capabilities. I think that Piazza has the kinds of threading and organization capabilities that I think might make for good discussions, so I’m planning on trying it this summer. CourseNetworking offers some of the post-response organization tools that might be familiar to students from social media, but may be too much new stuff for me to dump on students. Along very different lines, I’ve used Perusall in the past, but have struggled to incorporate text annotations into my teaching, and I don’t think they facilitate the kind of discussion I want to encourage, though they may be a way to encourage student-content interactions.

In a big-picture sense, what I’d like to try when I teach next online (this summer) is a discussion model based on online support sites. Instead of the instructor-centered model (“Class Discussion Boards” below), I’d like to try something in which students start and respond to question threads, perhaps with a group focused on generating the questions each week/half week/day. In the table below, () indicate events that happen sometimes, or maybe don’t happen at all. I’m using my experience on the Canvas support boards as an example of a “real” board.

Class Discussion Board “Real” Online Discussion Hybrid Idea
Instructor Posts Question User Has a Problem Instructor Poses Task
Student Responds User Searches Board for Answers Student Groups Discuss Task Separately
(Students Clarify Or Ask Additional Qs) User Posts Question Group Members Determine Sticking Points
Instructor Asks Follow-Up Other Users Respond Group Members Post Questions
(Students Respond) (User Clarifies) Other Students Respond
(Students Agree or Disagree) Other Users Respond (Group Members Clarify)
(Discussion Informs Student Responses Elsewhere) (Tech Support Clarifies) Other Students Respond
Answers Graded (Answers Get “Likes”) (Instructor Clarifies)
Answers Used in Real Life Answers Return to Group, Used for Task

So: what do you do to encourage student-student interactions in asynchronous online discussions? What issues have you encountered? What have you read/written about it?


Dixson, M. D. (2010). Creating effective student engagement in online courses: What do students find engaging? Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning, 10(2), 1–13.

Eddy, S. L., Brownell, S. E., Thummaphan, P., Lan, M.-C., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2015). Caution, Student Experience May Vary: Social Identities Impact a Student’s Experience in Peer Discussions. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 14(4), ar45.

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