Online discussions are a tool to initiate or extend learning by allowing students to engage with class material online. A discussion board is simply the tool that hosts the space for online discussions. Students are provided the opportunity to interact with student peers and teaching staff as a way of developing their learning and contributing to the learning of others. Discussion boards are also known as a discussion group, discussion forum, message board and online forum.
These boards are typically asynchronous, having each posting or communication started only after the preceding operation is completed. Sharing and discussing are seen as important components of the networked 21st century. Subsequently, the need for coherent interfaces to positively impact on eLearning experiences is of paramount importance. To reflect this importance, part of pedagogical unit design can include participation in and contribution to online discussions. This may be ‘assessed’ or not depending on the way the discussions are integrated into the curriculum.
Discussion boards must have clear purpose. Most commonly, they are used for formative or summative assessment and to connect peers. To promote meaningful student engagement, they should have some degree of facilitation and be constructively aligned to intended learning outcomes.
Student Voice regarding the purpose of online discussion boards
“To engage with the unit content as well as communicate with other members of the distance unit, while maintaining links with the unit coordinator”
“To share understandings and to discuss concepts being taught with peers”
“To be able to communicate ideas and thoughts with peers. Also to assist with each other’s learning outside of tutorial and lectures.”
“There were many different views and ideas presented that helped with a better understanding of things that may have been hidden/unknown”.
Some of the key reasons to incorporate a discussion board into curriculum design include:
- They serve as a vehicle for collaboration and the exchange of ideas. Students can talk to and learn from each other by initiating posts as well as respond and reply to posts;
- They can assist to build a sense of community among students. In a traditional classroom, students have the opportunity to get to know, interact with and learn from classmates. When a unit is fully online or, a combination cohort of on-campus and distance students, the online discussion can provide a vehicle to interact. Enabling students to interact with other students enables a community to be established contributing to a sense of belonging which is of particular importance to distance students.
When teaching staff and students interact and ask questions, the curriculum can be tailored to be more applicable to student and industry/profession needs. The forum of an online discussion board facilitates this as it:
- Allows time for ‘in-depth’ consideration of situations, questions, problems and issues as students can research and compile their thoughts before participating in the discussion
- Develops conceptual and writing skills particularly important when students are not writing in their first language and are able to consider and compose their content before posting (this in turn aides acquisition of the target language)
- Facilitates learning by allowing students to view, research and respond to the work, thoughts and opinions of others
- Allows guest ‘experts or specialists’ to participate by posting information and responding to questions; ‘experts’ can include the students who have experience in part of the curriculum and are able to add practical and insightful suggestions and solutions to real problems
- Flexible and not limited by time or space which is very useful where students and teaching staff are in different time zones/locations
- Provides a forum in which ‘In-class’ discussions can continue ‘online’ and vice versa; this interchange can often lead to valuable insights and different perceptions and therefore interpretation of ‘real’ issues and solutions
- Can prepare students for class activities by engaging in online discussions that are designed to familiarise them with new topics before entering the face-to-face classroom. For example, students can discuss their responses to a pre-class reading, activity, challenge or ‘problem’ and thus the in-class experience can be more in-depth
- Can simultaneously assist different types of learners; for example, they enable a ‘shy’ learner time to process their response and feel “safe” to post
- Provides informal peer assessment; students can give and receive feedback to their peers
- Allows students to utilise their discussions in assessment items where applicable; postings are saved even once the discussion has finished
- Allows students the opportunity to bounce ideas around, brainstorm and work through issues or problems in a fairly informal setting
- Develops skills in using online communication tools for post-graduation professional interactions