Setting the Tone for Discussion Boards

I’m a big fan of online discussion boards (even for F2F classes) because they can foster thoughtful, deep conversation and still be easy to grade. Good questions make them possible, but, of course, you have to have students being respectful and engaged. How to do it?

First, a clear policy of expectation. Something like this (which you can use in whole or in part, with or without attribution):

As we move our conversations from the F2F classroom to online discussion boards, you will have to interact with each other in new ways. I am excited for the opportunity because I think it will mean more of us will be speaking up (since X posts are required each week). Since our conversation will be asynchronous, you will have more time to think about and compose what you want to share with your classmates.

While each blog post’s instructions vary a little bit, every time you post, your words should be respectful, encouraging, and informed, and your comments should always add to–rather than just repeat–what someone else has already said.

Being respectful means that you do not use profanity or belittling language. Even when you disagree with someone, focus on the content of their argument as comments or insinuations about character or ability are never appropriate. Before you disagree, see if there is something in their post that you can agree with; even if you can’t agree with any of their claims, affirming that you understand their feelings or perspective helps the conversation move forward.

Encouraging means that you find what is worthy in someone else’s post and draw attention to it. But simply saying “Good point!” isn’t enough. You also need to encourage them to develop their ideas more by asking them a question or suggesting a “next step” for thinking about at topic. 

Informed means that your posts demonstrate that you have done the work to prepare for the conversation. You should have read/watched/listened to/practiced everything assigned for the week before you speak about it. Please don’t waste your classmates’ time by making comments that don’t show that you’ve put in the work required. When I grade discussion board posts, those that don’t show engagement with the concepts of the course receive no credit anyway, so please don’t waste time by making off-topic, irrelevant, or uniformed posts.

Posts that add to the conversation do more than repeat course content that learned elsewhere or affirm or disagree with other people’s opinions. Simply saying “I agree” or “I disagree” doesn’t help us learn. If you get stuck with your writing, re-read what you’ve already written and then add one of these sentences to the end of the conversation:

  • I think this because…
  • The part of this week’s class that helped me realize this was…
  • I wasn’t expecting to think this way because… but now I do because…
  • I can see how someone might thing differently about this topic if they…
  • My perspective on this is different from some of my classmates’ because…
  • This conversation makes me ask the question…
  • I wanted to learn more about this, so I found a source article about it that says…

I am eager to see how rich our conversations will be! As a final reminder about online etiquette: What we say in our discussion board remains in our class. It is not appropriate to screenshot or otherwise share what people say here. We understand that everything posted here is provisional and that people can change their opinions as they learn more. For that reason, we forbear with others as they struggle with new ideas, and we are patient with people as they find the words that best reflect their thinking. If someone doesn’t phrase something artfully, give them time to revise. If, however, you feel that someone is violating our commitment to respectful conversation, please let me know right away. I cannot monitor discussion board at all times, so I rely on students to report if someone’s comments are hurtful or disrespectful. If you see someone say something disrespectful, you don’t need to address them–just notify me and I’ll take care of it because it’s my job to help everyone learn to speak carefully online.

Conversation, 1879 - Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Renoir’s Conversation (1879). How can we achieve respectful conversation in online settings?

Second, consider creating a short quiz over the discussion board rules before you allow students to use it. Definitely ask about how many times they should post and when posts are due, but also include questions about what they should do if they see someone being disrespectful or any other rules you might have. (For example, I say no profanity, but perhaps you don’t want that to be a rule.)

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