Discussion Boreds

When I speak about integrating eLearning, in the broadest sense of the term, into traditional learning environments, I usually try to make one thing very clear: whether hardware or software, eLearning is a tool, and if that tool isn’t necessary, if it does make a process demonstrably faster, easier, more intuitive or in some other way better, there is no point in trying to sell it to your students or colleagues; they won’t buy it.

I have had a great deal of difficulty in implementing discussion boards, both in distance and blended learning environments. From what I can gather from other blogs, papers and articles, discussion boards usually fail for one of three reasons:

  • Technological incompatibilities – This seems a fairly uncommon occurrence in 2011, but any time you ask a committed technophobe (or an ancient library computer) to work with anything more complicated than Notepad, something is likely to go wrong. Individuals designing complicated discussion board tasks may fail account for the frustration factor. If it takes more than three attempts to log on, or if an accidental brush with the backspace key sends the browser back to the previous page, deleting the entire 2000-word entry, engagement with the process is going to be strained.
  • Aggression – This seems a fairly common occurrence in distance learning modules, and occurs near-constantly in non-academic fora, especially those dedicated to Real-Time Strategy or Role-Playing games. Indeed, the comment section of virtually any website is likely to contain a fair amount of vitriol. Without diligent moderation by the tutor or module leader, online discussion boards can quickly become molten streams of ad hominine attacks, often resulting from what, in a face-to-face context, would be seemingly innocuous comments. While I have often been privy to heated discussions outside the academic context, this has not yet occurred within my own teaching, though I have heard of it happening from enough colleagues to know it is a real concern.
  • Boredom and slow, painful death – This, I am afraid, is what usually happens to my discussion boards; hence the title of this post. In both distance and blended environments, I have found the initial impetus to post, and respond to others posts, wane completely in as few as seven days. The boards become ghost towns and even those student genuinely interested in the process will eventually depart owing to a lack of conversation.

I have tried several methods for keeping them alive, but with dismal results.

  • Requirement – I have in some cases simply made it a requirement that students post each week. However, this method tends to create streams of standalone statements, rather than a conversation. When I require they respond to another student it adds a momentary dialogue but is rarely continued beyond the requirement.
  • Active involvement – I have in other cases attempted to be an active participant in the discussion board, responding to students as I would have them respond to each other. This, however, this fosters a hub-and-spoke environment, something I try to avoid in face-to-face seminars as well. Indeed, my manner of response seems to encourage this type of dialogue, as evidenced by the frequent emails and DMs I receive about these blog posts but the paucity of comments posted for open consumption.
  • Directed conversation – In one case, I attempted to direct the conversation through specific initial questions. This worked very well, until the first 3 students had, in the opinion of their peers, sufficiently explored the implications of the questions posed. No follow-up questions were offered by students and the forum decayed.

I had started these discussion boards with the very best of intentions. I am acutely aware that students have limited formal contact hours with by me and their peers. I had hoped that the discussion board would serve as a semi-formal space to develop ideas for and from seminar discussions. However, students appear to see posting as a form of written assessment, one which requires a great deal of time for very limited direct reward.

In gaming discussion boards, literally hundreds of individuals will spend hours if not days and weeks discussing aspects of games in the most minute detail, sometimes writing tens of thousands of words on the morality, history or technical feasibility of a topic. In these discussions, they express an extremely high level of both technical competence and critical thinking ability; all with absolutely no financial or academic reward. Moreover, it would be simplistic to say that Space Marines are simply more interesting than the American Civil War, as non-academic boards flourish on these very topics.

Therefore, I must, once again, return to the idea of strategic learning. As a form of assessment, which is what it is most likely to be viewed as by students, it does not warrant the same level of attention and focus as essays and exams. It must therefore serve another purpose. Individuals interact with, even obsess over, gaming boards because they seek sociability, because they believe they are contributing to the general knowledge and because they believe their interactions will benefit them in their playing or developing of the game. As my add-on discussion boards fulfil none of these needs, it is no wonder that they continue to fail.

2 thoughts on “Discussion Boreds

  1. Derek Harding

    I have had similar failures with discussion boreds and I know colleagues have too. Frankly I don't think they work in this context (historical discussions) beyond the initial probing question stage.

    The only way round this I can think of (and I don't now have a context to try it in or I would have done so) is to have a discussion about 'questions' in that the purpose is not to answer questions but to come up with new and perhaps more nuanced ones. Might be worth a try

  2. M. H. Beals

    The only time I have ever been involved with a successful discussion board, as a student rather than an instructor, was in a situation such as you describe. The tutor required us to post our thoughts on a piece of reading and then, crucially, ask each other specific questions about our writing. It worked extremely well, in part I think, because of the very small group size, the fact that we were third year students and that many of us were already good friends.

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